Monday, December 11, 2017

Trouble with Triangles


This coming Sunday, John the Baptizer will again take center stage, but this time there's an extra layer of conflict in the gospel lesson from John 1. Yesterday, John was proclaiming a message of repentance, and "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem" went out to see and hear him. This Sunday, however, a different group will join the audience.

In the gospel lesson, we will read, "This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'" It is the religious authorities--priest and Levites--who send out this delegation of interrogators. They ask all of their questions--Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?--to which John repeatedly said no. Then, further revealing their motivation, they say, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" It is those words, when they acknowledge that they are not seeking an answer for themselves but for those who have sent them, that give this encounter a creepy, disingenuous feel.

Lately, I've noticed the words "asking for a friend" appear on Facebook frequently. In almost every case, it seems that the person asking is being funny--asking an odd question and acknowledging with humor the peculiarity of his/her own question. But, when we use those words for real, when we ask someone a question and refuse to be anything more than a messenger, a rhetorical distance is placed between the person doing the asking and the person being asked. That distance creates an artificial buffer between person asking and the seriousness of request as well as its implications.

As a parent of four children, I know this strategy well. "Daddy, my brother wants to know if we can have a treat after supper," I often hear. "Daddy, my sister said it's ok to make a mess in the playroom. Did you tell her that?" It's human instinct. We use that strategy when we don't want to be on the hook for our own question, our own problem, our own need.

Right from the beginning, the gospel writer is importing the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders into his story. That conflict will carry us through the whole gospel account, and John wants us to see where it started--at the beginning, even from the prologue: "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him" (John 1:11). He wants us to know that the religious leaders never gave Jesus a chance. They weren't interested in seeing for themselves what the forerunner was doing. They didn't want to give any credence to the Baptizer's preparatory movement by showing up at the Jordan River themselves. So they sent a delegation. "Who are you?" they asked. "Give us an answer for those who sent us?"

I wonder whether the gospel writer's implicit answer is "Tell them to come and see for themselves." In fact, a little later on in John 1, when Andrew and the unnamed disciple hear John the Baptist identify Jesus as the "Lamb of God," they ask Jesus, "Where are you staying?" And Jesus' reply is "Come and see."

As long as we're hiding behind someone else's question, someone else's problem, someone else's concern, we'll never get the answer for ourselves. Triangles are sturdy structures. They allow for stability in relationships. They allow us to deflect the real issue and maintain the homeostasis we've enjoyed for a long time. If we want to maintain the status quo of our lives, we'd do well to keep sending other people to ask John and Jesus who they are. But, if we're ready for something new, it's time for us to approach them ourselves.

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