Monday, February 04, 2019

Anonymous Asks (25)

“In dealing with authority, how can I explain things or make a point without sounding argumentative or disrespectful?”

The circumstances are not spelled out for us here. Is this a young man who wants to correct a Sunday school teacher, boss or professor on a point of fact? Is this a daughter who finds her father’s house rules restrictive and hopes for a little more freedom? Is this a sixteen year old pulled over in dad’s car for being five miles an hour over the speed limit who would like to know how best to negotiate his way out of a ticket? We do not know.

Fortunately, I think the biblical answer is not wildly different either way.

Listening in the Temple

At the age of twelve, Jesus went missing during an annual visit to the city of Jerusalem. He stayed behind unnoticed in the temple. When his concerned parents finally located him, Luke says he was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” That’s how you make a point without sounding argumentative or disrespectful.

When you’re talking about things that matter to those with vastly greater experience or authority, it is best to do what Jesus himself recommended and take the “lowest place at the wedding feast”. It can only get better from there. You don’t usually throw the humblest guy in the room out the door.

Inquiring of the Inquirers

Further, when confronted by his mother about why he had worried her, the young Jesus simply asked another question: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He was not being flippant or rude. He did not defy Mary, or mock or trivialize her concern. Rather, he urged her to greater faith by reminding her who she was correcting. Considering the circumstances of his birth, the words “my Father” are not overly subtle, but I picture them delivered to Mary in the mildest of gently reproachful tones.

Hey, she’d been told the same thing directly by an angel. She just needed a tactful reminder.

Not Babbling in Babylon

Daniel had a similar experience in Babylon. He did not walk up to the chief of the eunuchs and announce that the king’s food was an abomination to his Hebrew sensibilities and he refused to defile himself with it. Instead, he asked permission to abstain.

He did not ask because he was tentative or unsure. Scripture says Daniel “resolved”. He had already fully made up his mind and was willing to accept whatever consequences would befall him for refusing.

But I think he asked in order to give the chief eunuch a way to save face. Daniel did not make an unnecessary adversary of him. He did not ask for kosher portions or special privileges. He gave the chief eunuch an alternative that would cost him next to nothing and be no inconvenience at all (“let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink”), and then offered him the last word on the results (“test your servants”). Rather than asserting his own will, Daniel too assumed the low place.

The Point That Makes Itself

In short, when dealing with authority figures: (i) ask, don’t tell; (ii) show respect for their position and responsibility; and (iii) make it clear, if you are able, that your future obedience is not conditioned on receiving the answer you want.

Back to the example of Jesus for a moment. Luke finishes his temple anecdote with these words: “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” I guarantee during those years there were endless points Jesus could have made and an infinitude of things Jesus could have explained to Mary and Joseph that he just ... didn’t.

After all, the most convincing point of all is not the one you get hammered over the head with. It’s the point that makes itself.

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