Saturday, July 11, 2015

The cowardice of rhetorical questions

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 6:1-13.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Even notice how some people ask questions as statements?

See what I did there?

I made a statement but phrased it as a question.  What I actually said was, "I have noticed that some people ask questions as statements, and I am hoping you have too".

It's a harmless little rhetorical trick that draws people into a story.  But sometimes, rhetorical questions are far from harmless.

Take the Gospel passage for today.  Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, enters the synagogue and begins teaching.  Some of the people in the synagogue take offense at him.  They take offense for a number of reasons, chief amongst them being that Jesus was not a trained rabbi, and yet he was surrounded by disciples and was teaching at the synagogue.  He was also a 'local boy' that they had all seen grow up and ply his trade as a carpenter before he embarked on his ministry.

So they begin asking questions.

But the problem is, the questions they ask him are not honest, nor are they even asked directly to him.  Rather, they are grumbled amongst one another.  They are questions meant to blame, shame and to diminish.

Let's go over their questions and translate what they are actually saying:

"Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hand!"

The statement in these 'questions' are pretty obvious: "He is not qualified to teach.  He has no training, no credentials, no authority.  He is a charlatan".

The next questions they ask are, "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"

The statements are once again pretty clear: "He is a manual laborer, the son of an unwed mother, the nothing from a family of nothings whom we have know are whole lives".

It is also telling that they call him "The son of Mary".  In a patriarchal society like ancient Judaism, once would generally trace lineage to one's father.  But of course, the whole town knew that Jesus was not Joseph's son, so they call him "the son of Mary".  It sounds innocent enough until you realize they are actually trying to diminish Jesus by pointing out that he is a bastard (using this word in the dictionary definition of the term, and not the pejorative).

Now, who knows why they reacted like such jerks.  Chances are, they were irked at someone who had little or no formal education expounding on spiritual matters more profoundly than they were capable of.  Perhaps they were jealous that Jesus was stealing their spotlight.  Maybe they feared for their positions of importance in the community.  Maybe they just resented a 'local boy' who had done better than them.  Who knows?

Either way, they made a snap decision about Jesus and didn't even give him the benefit of the doubt.  They just decided that he was not worth listening to and so they begin to grumble to other people to undermine him.

How differently might this situation have gone if they had just listened to Jesus?  How differently would it have gone if they had just asked their questions directly to Jesus, loaded as they were?

And more the point of my sermon, how differently would this discussion have gone if they had just gone up to Jesus and said, "We are angry at you and afraid of you because you are threatening to us", thereby actually opening an actual dialogue with Jesus.  Real progress could have been made that day.

So are we asking the same questions?  Are we asking these questions of ourselves, of each other, and even of God?

Questions are great.  Questions are the way we increase our knowledge.  But if we are asking questions to make statements, we are just being jerks.  In the future, perhaps we can restrict our questions to things for which we are actually seeking answers, and restrict our statements to things that will make us, our families, our churches, our workplaces and our communities better places.

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