Here as Jesus is teaching, religious leaders attempt to question Jesus in order to trap him before the crowds. They ask where he got his authority to teach, as he did not go through the priestly or rabbinic schools. Jesus asks them where John the Baptizer got his authority. Not wanting to publicly disparage that popular figure, but also not wanting to endorse him, they say they don’t know. Jesus says if they can’t answer him, he doesn’t need to answer them.
Here we see Jesus dealing with individuals confronting him only in order to prove what they have already made up in their own minds, not seeking true dialogue or understanding. This sort of interchange happens so often in our communities. You can pick an issue – how to understand a pet doctrine of the church, whether to support gay marriage or carbon footprint reduction laws – and there will always be some who go into that conversation with an agenda. When they converse, they don’t really listen and hear the other’s perspective, but show up with their talking points wanting to only “win” the argument.
Jesus can see these few are wanting to relate in this way, a way that brings no true connection or transformation but only the smug reassurance that you are right and another is wrong. Jesus decides to opt out of that game. Jesus knows the sort of power plays and manipulations such arguments bring, so he simply bows out. My dog is not in your fight, folks.
Choosing not to take part in such back and forth in this case is a powerful example. If we are honest, many of us are tempted when we confront someone whose views we see as dreadfully wrong and perhaps even damaging to others to swoop in and join in the tit for tat. Elsewhere Jesus does engage in some debate, but he is modeling for us to be discerning and to realize that such a tit for tat may make us feel superior to others, smug in our self-righteousness, but it rarely changes minds. The reason it rarely does so is often in such situations we are all so quick to spend our time while others talk thinking about our response, we rarely hear each other. Instead of truly connecting and coming to know another’s experience and have the one we are talking with connect with us in the same way, we often talk past each other. We end up often not even answering each other’s beliefs and experiences, but constructing straw men and straw women versions of each other that respect less each other’s own experiences but our own preconceived notions.
Recently on “This American Life”, they did a segment on studies into what actually can transform people’s perspectives on important burning issues (see http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/555/the-incredible-rarity-of-changing-your-mind). In the piece, they found that what changes our perspective is not debating issues, providing proofs, but real living encounters with other people with different views, encounters in which a true connection occurs. Some findings later question the methodology of some of the studies “this American Life” explores, but its basic premise – that it is encounters with others where a real connection between people occurs, not just intellectual arguing, which brings real change of perspective – I think is true to our lived experience.
I remember being a preacher in a conservative evangelical denomination, then called Worldwide Church of God but now renamed Grace Communion International. I knew what I knew about what the Bible said about homosexuality. Then I had a parishioner who was gay come out to me and tell me of his struggle, with his experience that being gay was a part of who he was that could not change, as well as his experience striving to live by the dictates of the church in regards to not having romantic relationships with men he was attracted to even though it made him painfully lonely, and his experience being rejected by people in church. Those sessions talking with me caused a real connection with that man. No longer was being gay an “issue” – it was a face, a name. And when I found that the well-worn dogmas and interpretations I quoted to him didn’t fit his actual lived experience at all, it forced me to re-examine my beliefs. I found that modern scholarship doesn’t find homosexuality as such condemned in the Bible, but certain specific sex acts which, in an opposite gender context, are also condemned without condemning all straight relationships. I found there were no verses condemning gay relationships that resembled marriage at all, and in fact some verses that might be understood to describe positive models of same-gender love. I found that scientists found same-gender relationships in all kinds of animals, as a natural biological variance just as much normal as height or eye color. I found social scientists say there was nothing any more pathological about one’s sexual orientation than one’s handedness, and the only negative mental health situations coming from one’s sexual orientation were based on trying to suppress or change it. This connection with this man led me to other connections with people, including some family members and neighbors, who shared the same story. It transformed my perspective. God used that experience, that relationship, to transform me from an opponent of gay rights, to a friend, ally, and advocate for LGBT people.
I think that Jesus’ example shows us the need to avoid becoming caught up in proving who is right, and to not feel the need to give into other’s desire (or our own) to debate in such a way. I think Jesus models for us instead seeking this genuine human connection which will transform us and others in ways we cannot anticipate or expect. That move can be challenging, and frightening, but we can trust our Mothering Holy Spirit to guide that experience to be life-giving for us and others.