David Livermore is an international speaker and social scientist devoted to the study of cultural intelligence, which is basically the study of how to understand each other and work together when you come from different countries, races, or any other type of background. He tells of his of one experience in China where he opened up his talk before a Chinese audience with a self deprecating story which he thought was funny. His Mandarin was pretty bad so he had to use a translator. When he got to the punch line he was pleased when the crowd laughed. Thinking that he had mastered the art of intercultural human he continued to use the story throughout his speaking tour in China. Only a couple of weeks later did he discover that his translator wasn’t actually translating his story. Because in Chinese culture being self deprecating isn’t funny it actually casts a lot of doubt on your abilities as a professional and a person. So she basically told the audiences that David was telling a story that he thought was funny but it really wasn’t. But to make the poor American feel the translator asked the audiences to laugh on her cue. And they did. When one of David’s Chinese friends pointed this out to him he was somewhat offended. He ended up having a difficult conversation with his translator. It turned out to be productive in the long run. But it was hard conversation in the short run.
Unlike David’s translator in this story, Jesus doesn’t mince words in today’s passage. After he fed five thousand people with five barely loaves and two fishes, he gets into a deeper conversation with the crowd about the meaning behind the miracle. He tells them that to have eternal life they must feed on his flesh and drink of his blood. Jesus being Jewish himself, knew that the Hebrews scriptures forbid the drinking of blood by Jews (Leviticus 17). He knew that using this language, even in a metaphorical way, would be extremely offensive to his audience, and yet he did it anyway. Apparently, at the time he had a bigger following of disciples than just the original 12. Many of his disciples found this to be a hard, or grating saying, so they grumbled within themselves. But Jesus, knowing their hearts, basically said, “ you think that is hard to accept, just wait till you see me return to heaven which is where I came from.” This was just too much for many of his disciples and they turned away. So Jesus said to the twelve, “ do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The Good News Today is this: When we embrace difficult conversations we shall find words of life for each other. We embrace difficult conversations by;
- Using curiosity to expand our understanding of what is happening.
- Focusing on impact over intentions
- Focusing on Joint Contribution rather than blame.
Shelia Sheen is the author of the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. After reading the book I found it to be a good framework for understanding the difficult conversation going on in this passage about eternal life, as well as how to handle the difficult conversations in this life.
First, difficult conversations are often difficult because we have different ideas about what happened. We come at a situation from different perspectives. Often conversations are difficult because in fact we are not talking about the same conversation. We are talking about different things at the same time, we are talking over each others heads, which is what leads to frustration. Today’s conversation about eating Jesus’ flesh, and drinking his blood, began with the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand men, probably 20,000 people in all including men and women, with five loaves at two fish. But those who ate the loaves failed to understand that often miracles are physical expressions of spiritual principles. Jesus wasn’t just trying to feed them physically he was trying to feed them eternally. But while Jesus is trying to talk about what God has done to ensure the worlds future, the crowd is concerned about what God has done in the past. The people of Israel remember when God fed them with bread from heaven after he freed them from slavery in Egypt. They had defined their identity as a nation around this major work of God. What Jesus hearers lacked was a level of curiosity about what God would do in the future. If we are not curious we will be offended by new information rather than intrigued by it. We must be curious about the perspective of others. Because we are all coming from different places. In this case Jesus hearers are coming from an earthly perspective and Jesus is coming from the perspective of one who was there in the beginning as the Word. Who was with God and was God. He his coming from a heavenly perspective.
We see the importance of curiosity and perspective in how different cultures interpret the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Even if you are not much of church goer you are probably aware of the story of the son who asked for his inheritance, journeyed to a far off country, and ended up destitute and was forced to survive by feeding pigs. David Livermore, tells of a study where researchers asked people in three different countries a pretty basic question. Why did the son end up in the pig pen? People in Russia said the prodigal son ended up in the pig pen because there was a famine. People in Tanzania said the prodigal son ended up in the pig pen because no one would give him anything to eat. And people in America said he ended up in the pig pen because he squandered all his father’s wealth. Well here is what the text says, “ Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to one of the citizens of the country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”
In fact, all three circumstances are mentioned as reasons for why the prodigal ended up in the pig pen. And as an American, for most of my life, I sort of just assumed that the main factor was because he squandered his father’s wealth, because our culture values individualism and personal responsibility. But the text says he didn’t begin to be in want till the famine. The text also says he was hungry because no one would give him anything to eat. The scripture doesn’t say that any one factor was more important than the other in leading to the prodigal’s misery. And yet, depending on their culture, the respondents of the survey focused on something different. Embracing an attitude of humility and curiosity allows us to see the beauty of Christ in the world and beyond this world. If God so loved the world, and not just our particular part of it, perhaps it is not an issue of who is first but what we can learn from each other.
Second, difficult conversations are difficult because of the grumblings that go on inside of us. They are difficult because of our emotions. In our text today John tells us that Jesus knew in himself that the people who heard him were grumbling. The implication is that they were not speaking out loud but Jesus knew what they were thinking and feeling. Various scriptures suggests that either all the time or at certain points Jesus knew what others were thinking and feeling. This is perhaps what he made him such a good preacher and debater. As John tells us earlier in the Gospel, “Jesus did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:24-25). Though many of his disciples left him after these hard sayings, this wasn’t a mistake on Jesus’ part. This is what he intended.
The difference between us and Jesus is Jesus knew in himself what others were thinking. We make inferences about what others are thinking by what we see on the outside. We are guessing. We may get really good at guessing, but we are still guessing, and when we guess wrong a lot of pain and misunderstanding can result. Proverbs 14:10 states, “ Each heart knows its own bitterness and no one else can share its joy.” This is basically saying that we can’t know the intentions of others based of their actions. We may infer their intentions, but we don’t know their hearts, we are essentially guessing. And yet, much hurt in difficult conversations comes from assuming the other persons intentions.
Sheen, in her book, gives the example of Lori and Leo, a couple who have been in a relationship for two years. The couple has a recurring fight that has been really hurting their relationship. The fight started when they were at a party thrown by some friends. A sheen describes it, “ Lori was about to reach for another scoop of ice cream, when Leo said, “Lori, why don’t you lay off the ice cream?” Lori, who struggles with her weight, shot Leo a nasty look, and the two avoided each other for a while. Later that evening things went from bad to worse:” Here is how the conversation went,
“Lori: I really resented it at the party, the way you treated me in front of our friends.
Leo: The way I treated you? What are you talking about?
Lori: About the ice cream. You act like you’re my father or something. You have this need to control me or put me down.
Leo: Lori, I wasn’t trying to hurt you. You said you were on a diet, and I’m just trying to help you stick to it. You’re so defensive. You hear everything as an attack on you, even when I’m trying to help.
Lori: Help!? Humiliating me in front of my friends is your idea of helping?
Leo: You know, I just can’t win with you. If I say something, you think I’m trying to humiliate you, and if I don’t, you ask me why I let you overreact. I am so sick of this. Sometimes I wonder whether you don’t start these fights on purpose..”
Sheen argues that in this classic difficult conversation Lori and Leo are making two key mistakes. Lori’s mistake was to assume she knew Leo’s intentions. Perhaps Leo was lying about his intentions, perhaps Leo had a mix of feelings and intentions at the time and doesn’t even understand after the fact why he did what he did, whatever the case that is between him and God. No one can know Leo’s intentions but Leo and God.
Leo also made a mistake in this difficult conversation. His mistake was to think after he clarified that his intentions were good, that Lori would no longer be justified in being upset. But Leo’s intentions are not what hurt Lori. All of us at times have all sorts of thoughts and feelings going through our heads. Some of them may be good. Some of them may be bad. Jesus lived with the blessing and burden of having to know the intentions of others inside himself. He could be hurt by other people’s negative thoughts. But in a way God has blessed us by protecting us from the negative intentions of others. Leo didn’t hurt Lori because of his intentions. He hurt Lori because of his words and actions. Lori needs to realize that accusing Leo of bad intentions is more than she can know and only makes him defensive. Leo needs to realize that his intentions towards Lori are not the issue. What hurt Lori was his words and actions.
Finally, Sheen points out at the deepest level of difficult conversations are questions about identity. At the very center of a difficult conversation is the question, “What does this situation say about me?” Am I as bad as the other person thinks I am? Am I as good as I think I am? What do I believe? What is important to me? Am I living by my own values? Looking at today’s text what does this conversation say about Jesus? And what does it say about us?
In regards to what today’s conversation says about Jesus I think C.S put it best in his work Mere Christianity,
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
The more I have studied the scriptures and walked with the Lord the more I have found this quote to be true. Jesus was not a good moral teacher. Our text today shows us he is either a lunatic or Lord. We need to decide.
What then does this passage reveal about our identity? Well I think there is a temptation to see ourselves as Jesus in this passage. Defenders of the Truth, sticking to our guns, standing up for our principles and if people don’t like it they can make like a tree and leave. But I don’t think it is realistic or wise to place ourselves in the place of Jesus, no matter how right we may be on the first level of the facts that lead to a difficult conversation. Because Jesus knew the hearts of all, he was tempted like us in every way, but without sin, his intentions and actions were one. But that is not how we will ever be this side of eternity. We know only in part. Our intentions and actions are mixed and divided. Perhaps in this passage we are the crowd that comes to hear Jesus but doesn’t get the deeper message. Perhaps we are Peter, we confess him as the Holy One of God but we deny him three times when the chips are down. But we are never Jesus in this passage. What does this passage say about who we are? I think this passage says we are sinners. And we need to ask God to have mercy on us sinners.
Now saying that we are sinners doesn’t sound like a very positive statement these days. And I think there is a lot of theology in the church that suggests that calling people sinners suggests that we assume that generally people have bad intentions and bad character and that is why the world is in the horrible state that it is. But I know in my own life I have had good intentions and a generally good character and yet I have still hurt people. Being a sinner has nothing to do with our intentions or our character. It has to do with our neglect of the needs of others. Being a sinner means that we all care more about ourselves than we do about others. Loving ourselves is not a sin. But it is how sin entered into the world.
We see this in the Garden (Genesis chapter 3). We see the blame game. Who is to blame? The serpent? The woman? The man? We spend our time pointing our fingers where what God wants us to do is admit our part in it. Confess your part and then let us get that crazy, talking, accusing snake out of the garden. It’s accusing us. It’s ruining us.
Sheen argues we need to move from blame to what she calls a conversation around joint contribution. Blame is about judging and looking backwards. Joint contributions asks what have each of us has done or not done to contribute to the problem and how do we make things better to improve our future. Blame is about judging. Joint contribution is about understanding. The Apostle Paul talks about joint contribution in Romans 3:11-12, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” We all have neglected to do things we should do and have done things we should not have done. Instead of focusing on who is to blame we should focus on how to make it better. How to make the Kingdom of God come on Earth as it is in heaven.
If we are not to conduct ourselves as Jesus did in his difficult conversation how then are we to handle our difficult conversations. I think Paul gives us some suggestions in Romans 15. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another with zeal in showing honor. Rejoice in hope. Be patient in tribulation. Constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Show hospitality. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not overcome evil with evil but overcome evil with goodness. So today in our difficult conversations let us ask mercy from the Lord to accept his hard words, not to turn away when we hear hard words, but to turn towards him, and turn towards each other. And as we do lest us ask for grace, peace, love, and truth, that we may find on the other side we are one, when we embrace our difficult conversations.