The Right Questions

Acts 8:26-40

“Leaders do not need answers. Leaders must have the right questions.”

That’s from Lovett Weems, the director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. Weems seems to be everywhere right now – at least if you’re a United Methodist pastor – and for good reason. He’s got some really good, simple, easy-to-apply ideas about how to strengthen church leadership, such as:

“Leaders do not need answers. Leaders must have the right questions.”

I first heard Weems make this statement in a clergy training session. Immediately I breathed a sigh of relief, because the right answers are often so hard to find. I wish I knew the answers to our painful personal problems, or our complicated church issues. But asking questions? Shoot, I can do that all day long. I got questions, and plenty of them.

Weems’ advice isn’t about quantity, though; it’s about a quality of questions, the right questions.

“Leaders must have the right questions.”

That’s still doable – I do love questions – but it’s a little more challenging. So I try to stay on the lookout for these “right” questions.

And there are four of them in the Scripture for today.

"The Baptism of the Eunuch," Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626.

“The Baptism of the Eunuch,” Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626.

The story is about an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back home after worshipping in Jerusalem. This is a strange plot point, because by Jewish law a eunuch – a castrated male – wouldn’t have been allowed to go into the Temple.* Maybe the story assumes we will put two and two together on this, and know that our eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship, but was denied entrance to the Temple.

This eunuch enjoyed a high social status – he was in charge of the Queen’s treasury – but a low religious status. He was an outsider, an outcast.

Then along comes Philip. This is no mere coincidence; an angel sends him specifically to this wilderness road, and when he sees the Ethiopian, the Spirit tells him to go over and talk to him. So he runs up to the chariot, sees the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah, and asks our first good question:

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

This could be an insulting question. The Ethiopian is literate; he can read. Imagine that my husband finds me reading Cold Mountain before bed and dares to ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Can you imagine the look I’d give him in return?

But the eunuch isn’t reading Cold Mountain; he’s reading the book of Isaiah.

Have you ever tried to read the book of Isaiah? Or, for that matter, anything in the Bible? Then this becomes an important question – the right question. Because it’s great to read the Bible, but if we don’t get it, then what good does all that reading do?

And sure enough, the eunuch doesn’t get it. Which leads him to ask our next good question:

“How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”

Reading the Bible alone is a good practice. I start each day that way, reading and journaling and praying over Scripture. There’s suggested readings for each day on our church’s Facebook page, and I hope you follow along. But reading on our own only gets us so far.

The Holy Spirit has a way of speaking to us through each other. During the Bible Study of Mark we did this year, I learned new things about that familiar gospel every week. I learn from my congregation, and I hope they learn from me. There is a level of understanding that we cannot reach without things like Bible studies or Sunday School or (I hope) sermons, that allow us to hear someone else’s explanation.

So, having been invited to do some ‘splaining, Philip hops in the chariot. The eunuch had been reading Isaiah 53, which describes a suffering servant:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

Looking at this passage, the eunuch asks: “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”

This is a very good question. It’s a question at the center of our faith.

At the time, there was a popular answer in circulation: the suffering servant was the faithful nation of Israel. The Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t seem to be satisfied with that answer. I can imagine why: it left him out. He was not from Israel, and even if he was, they weren’t letting him in the Temple anyway.

So maybe he asks this question sensing that there’s something more, there’s something else – that there might be another, truer answer.

This is what asking the right questions can lead us to: the real answers.

And the eunuch gets his answer. Philip tells him that his passage is about Jesus – Jesus is the suffering servant. We don’t know exactly what Philip said, except that it was “good news.” I wonder if that “good news” included how Jesus Christ died for our sins so that the whole world might be saved, Ethiopians included. I wonder if Philip flipped the pages of the eunuch’s book to Isaiah 56, and read to him:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.”

I bet that felt like incredibly good news to the eunuch. I bet that felt like the real answer to the right question.

And then, the chariot happens upon some water. This land is dry desert wilderness, so this has to be a bit of divine providence, I think. Seeing the water and filled with this good news, the Ethiopian asks the best question of all:

“What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”

We know what happens from here, so we might read this question as though it’s simply rhetorical. But wait and think for a minute; put yourself in first-century shoes. Remember that eunuchs weren’t allowed in the Temple. Remember that this man was an outsider from another country.

Is there anything to stand in the way of him being baptized?

There could have been. Philip could have pointed to Deuteronomy 23.

But he did not. He didn’t hesitate. The chariot screeches to a halt. They jump out and rush down to the water, and Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. It doesn’t say so in the Bible, but we might imagine Philip bringing him back up out of the water, reborn as a new and complete child of God, all in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

In your faith, you might struggle to find answers to hard questions. That’s okay. Don’t worry so much about finding the right answers – instead, ask the right questions.

Questions like:

Do I understand what I’m reading?
Who will explain it to me?
Who is this Good News really about?
What would prevent me from being baptized?

It’s not a bad thing to lack the right answers, because the answers we seek aren’t the ones we come up with. The answers we want – the answers we need – are the ones that God provides.


* Deuteronomy 23:1

Credit to the New International Bible Commentary and the People’s New Testament Commentary for background on this story.

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