Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Power of an Absent Ending: Making the Listener the Main Character


rushing train image is from Dreamstime.com (https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1JJTC_enUS1011US1011&q=google+image+rushing+train&tbm)

Evangelist Bill Iverson was walking through the ruins of burned-up Springfield Avenue just as the Newark, New Jersey riots subsided. The streets were empty, when he met an elderly man carrying a little doll in his hand. The sun’s heat was beating down mercilessly as all the shelter had been scorched away. “Hot day!” said Bill. 

“Not as hot as it’s gonna be!” the man snarled.

What does a white man say to a black man in the aftermath of a race riot?

Bill said, “What’s a big man like you doing carrying a little doll?”

The man he’d just met immediately softened up and said he had found this little doll and was bringing it to a little child he knew who had been displaced by the fires.

Bill then commended him and told him that a lot of people felt that way, but Jesus was here in the midst of the disaster, just like this man, himself, doing acts of love for all the victims.

Known for his emphasis on the maieutic method of evangelism, the midwifing technique he’d learned from Plato’s dialogues of Socrates bringing truth out of those he met through questioning, Bill was also drawing on a strategy that the Holy Spirit implemented throughout the Bible to spark an interest in hearers and readers. Jesus also employed this effective approach, as did the historian Mark, all of which Bill deftly melded together.[1]

The power was in asking questions and evoking answers rather than simply dumping a truckload of information on targeted people, often in the form of answering someone who was asking no question.  As in Bill’s case, the issue was compounded: how do you handle an angry person?

This was the situation that God faced with Jonah. Jonah was furious. The Ninevites were infamous for killing babies and desecrating corpses.[2] Jonah wants to see them destroyed. So how does God help Jonah look beyond his anger? God asks him three questions. In Jonah 4:4 God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

God creates a living parable. God provides a plant to give Jonah shade as he sits outside the city waiting for the fire to fall. The next day God makes a worm and a sultry east wind destroying Jonah’s shade and making him the hot one. No fire falls on the city.

Then God repeats and expands the question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

Jonah shouts, “Yes! Angry enough to die!” (Jonah 4:9).

Then the Lord asks the pay-off question that ends the book of Jonah. God points out, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:10-11 NRSV).

And then Jonah’s conscience rises and he leaves the question for his readers so their consciousness will rise too. Will we move into forgiveness if our adversaries repent or just continue to sit and snarl in our anger?

Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son works in a similar way. Jesus echoes this technique when he tells three parables to the Pharisees and the scribes who are complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2).

In the first, a story about a shepherd losing one sheep, leaving his flock to search for his lost sheep, Jesus appeals to a neutral topic, their concern for their livestock just like God asked Jonah. The second is a little more pointed. It’s about a woman losing money and searching for her lost coin, since the Pharisees were known to love money (Luke 15:3-10; 16:14).

The final parable is analogous to Jonah’s situation, where an elder son, representing the Pharisees and the scribes, challenges his father’s mercy for the younger son who had been consorting with prostitutes and losing his father’s inheritance yet was forgiven by his father.  The elder son is furious like Jonah, but the compassionate father, representing God, forgives (Luke 15:11-32). Again, as with Jonah, we are never told the final response of the elder son. Jesus leaves the answer for the Pharisees and the scribes to complete, just as Jonah did with his account, leaving it to the readers to respond.

A final example is the ending of the gospel of Mark, was it lost or, again, as an inspired biblical writer, did Mark leave the ending for the reader to complete? Mark tells us the tomb is empty and even adds the angel’s explanation and command to the women to tell the disciples that the Lord has risen, but the last words he writes tell us the women were terrified (Mark 16:4-8).. The shock is for the hearers and readers to take away with them and form their own affirmative response to Jesus’s shocking resurrection. Mark’s gospel’s great feature again is the absence of an ending that the reader must supply, how will you respond?[3]

It's so easy to overdo it when we want to point someone toward the gospel. We want so much for them to meet the real Jesus and experience the joy of salvation we can run into them like the 2:30 express and have them jump off the tracks and flee rather than get on and catch the ride to glory. Our job may actually be to leave a space for our listeners to respond, to enable them to become the final character of our narrative. Restrained provocative questioning makes room for the Holy Spirit to work wonders in a person’s heart. After all, we are just the conductors, not the Engineer!

Bill and Aida     

[1] For an explanation of the Socratic method of education, see: William T. Iverson, Jesus and the Ways of Socrates: Human-Shaped Education for the Twenty-First Century (Crossbooks, 2012).

[2] E.g., Nahum 3:10.

[3]  The other endings in Mark 16 are later ones, missing from all the oldest Greek manuscripts and many older translations. See Ada Besançon Spencer, “The Denial of the Good News and the Ending of Mark,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 17:2 (2007): 269-83 for an explanation of a main theme in Mark and how it relates to the current ending and a discussion of the different manuscripts.