Friday, January 06, 2012

The Trap of Our Words

My wife has been watching a BBC show called Downtown Abbey which is the story of a fictional aristocratic family. The show starts out just after the sinking of the Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic has created a problem for the family because the law states that the estate can only pass to a male heir. The family only has daughters and the oldest daughter was engaged to marry her cousin. This would allow the estate to remain in the family but he died on the Titanic. Because of this loss the next closest male heir is another distant cousin. Unfortunately for the family this cousin–Matthew–is not an aristocrat. Matthew is part of the upper-middle class and is about to start a job as a lawyer. When Matthew and his mother come to the abbey there are a number of culture clashes which includes the handling of servants. 

The servants in the abbey have a hierarchy that has its own set of rules and an honor system. One of the higher positions is that of being the valet to the Lord. The servant that was serving as Matthew's valet felt very disrespected in that Matthew did not allow the valet to perform his duties. The valet finally approaches Matthew and he makes the comment, "Well it seems that those things are beneath a grown man."

Matthew immediately realizes that he deeply insulted the valet. The valet was merely doing the job that he was hired to do and one of the best jobs that he could get. Matthew apologizes profusely but the damage had been done.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the things that we say can hurt people. I am sure that everyone can relate a story where something that they have said hurt someone. And I am sure that everyone has been on the receiving end as well.

But there is a flip side to this as well. While our words can have power over others, others can have power over our words as well. I came across a story like this the other morning. The story is found at the end of Mark 11. Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time and is in the week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The beginning of the week is marked with conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders.

Just the day before Jesus had cleared all of the money-changers and people selling animals out of the temple. "Surprisingly" this didn't sit well with the chief priests, scribes and elders. So they came to challenge Jesus:

"By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?"

They didn't like what Jesus was doing and were trying to do anything to discredit him. The question was most likely a trap. The leaders figured that they could catch Jesus saying something that would cause him to either lose his popularity with the people or to greatly anger the Roman authorities. If Jesus lost his popularity with the people then the leaders could get rid of Jesus without angering the people. If Jesus upset Rome then Rome could get rid of Jesus and the people would be angry with Rome. Either way the Jewish leaders figured it was a win for them. But they didn't count on how Jesus would respond:

"Jesus said to them, 'I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.'"

The Jewish leaders found themselves in a dilemma. They realize that if they answered that John's baptism was from heaven then they would be in trouble for not believing John. If they answered that John's baptism was from man–which is what they believed–then they might anger the people and they were afraid of the people. The Jewish leaders were more concerned about maintaining their position of power by saying what they felt that the people wanted to hear rather than seeking the truth. 

It is a very easy trap to fall into. Our words can easily be controlled by what we want others to think of us rather than by our seeking and speaking the truth. When that happens we have given other people power over our words. We have a balancing act to do. We must speak in love whenever we speak in truth. We cannot say something hurtful and fall back on the excuse of it being the truth. We also cannot say something untrue because we think that it will cause someone to think better of us.

It strikes me that what we see in the story about Matthew and the valet along with how the Jewish leaders were trapped points out the importance and power that we find in our words. We need to not only be careful about what we say but also about who we allow to control what we say.

1 comment:

  1. Good post Mike. It brought to mind John 8:1-11, which we discussed in Bible study last week, where Jesus was confronted over the woman caught in adultery and is offered what is essentially a trick question. If he answers one way he is condemned under Mosaic law and if he goes the other way he submits to their authority over him.

    As I re-read your last paragraph I am reminded that it is God, as revealed through the Bible, who I need to be constantly aligned with, so if anyone is influencing my words, it is he.

    Blessings on your blogging. Brad