Reflections from the Pulpit: When people aren’t heard for the wrong reasons; and what to listen for

Somehow I was involved with a discussion on oil consumption when on vacation one year and where I disagreed with the people around me. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember someone asking me “Where are you from?” I replied that it doesn’t matter where I am from, the points I was trying to make did not depend on my geography. My answer wasn’t satisfying and my comments were dismissed by others in the group. I hung on nevertheless, and continued to make my points. When we ended, nobody had changed their mind and each kept reiterating what was previously said. Other than disagreeing, the dialogues were useless!

All too often I’ve heard that “People from … are like that” or “That’s typical of those …” or “You can always expect people from … to think that way.”

A few years back, one of my colleagues was identified as trying to “understand” immigrants from a Caribbean country in the Church he served and apparently didn’t make much headway. When I began ministry there, one parishioner said to me “You don’t understand us.” My reply was “Well, you all don’t think alike!” and I let it go at that. So did the people in the congregation and we got along very well for my tenure there.

My parents came from different backgrounds and disagreements were sometimes attributed to the differences. For awhile I dated someone whose parents came from the same country, disagreements being attributed to the fact that they were from different towns! As I began to explore the New Testament, I noted that people were identified by their professions or where they came from.

Paul writes about “Alexander the coppersmith … (2 Timothy 4:14) and is himself known as “a man from Tarsus named Saul (Acts 9:11). In those days there were no last names; people being identified by where they were from or what they did. However, it also told something about their backgrounds, beliefs, politics and customs. These were factors that would shape them for their lives too.

Jesus Himself had this problem too. He has fed 5,000 people and then goes off by Himself with His disciples (John 6;22-25). The crowds search and find Him and He tells them “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (6:26).” Jesus tells them that He is the Bread of Life; what He will give is more than just nourishment here on earth; declaring “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (6:35ff).” Then those who followed began to “grumble (v. 41).” “Is not this the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. How can he now say ‘I came down from Heaven’? (v. 42).” Jesus reiterates that He is the bread that came down from Heaven and calls for belief. The dissenters continue to argue and were divided among themselves; “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?(v. 52).”

The ploy is to assail the person and ignore what he is saying; to look for weaknesses in what is being proclaimed; to point out “we know him, he’s outside of his field” and find a rationale to dismiss what is being said. I’ve been told that it is an effective tactic, even if it has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

It was a problem in Jesus’ day and is still with us. Jesus chose to stay above the fray. His words are still with us and have lasted.

I have found that I do better when I listen to what people say rather than worry about where they’re from or what their lineage may be.

Jesus’ “lineage” didn’t bother Him; He made use of it by opening the doors to all of humanity. His mandate was to “Go into all of the world…” and that’s the way that overcomes dismissing others for reasons that don’t matter after all.

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