Wit With Ness Or Less

Matthew 22:15-22 – The 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 16, 2011

“Tell us then, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor…” (Matthew 22:17)

My wife and I were on our morning walk, the dog trotting near us, when I asked, “What housecleaning should we do today?”

You know the drill. Friends were expected for a visit. It’s the bad news/good news about guests: drats we have to tidy up, but it’s an incentive to tackle neglected chores.

By asking the question, by putting the obvious on the table first, I thought myself clever. Why? Like all right-thinking and intelligent human beings, I can’t stand cleaning. Nonetheless, some work must be done and I figured—‘cuz I’m also sneaky—asking her to list possible chores “first” allowed me a chance to nab the least-worst items on our impending list of tasks. In other words, my lovely wife would suggest priorities and I’d claim the easiest ones.

I asked my question. We strolled along the sidewalk. The dog sniffed a tree as if a dogsled running the Iditarod took a break around its trunk.

“Well,” she answered, “what do you think are the most important ones?”

Gotcha. A question with a question. My wife does that. A lot. She’s a teacher—and I think a darn good one, though I’m biased—and her teaching style includes questions for her students. She wants them to think, wonder and grow. She avoids lecturing and encourages discussion. And she brings her work home!

Some religious leaders in Jesus’ day famously approached him, infamously scheming to trick him into a dangerous mistake, and wondered if it’s “…lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

Jesus answered their question with a question. He requested a coin, a denarius with Caesar’s image on it.

“Whose head is this, and whose title?”

You know the drill. You know the Biblical story.

When Jesus seemed threatened, he was adept at turning the tables. Jesus also embraced positive opportunities to reveal God’s ways. Questions were met by questions in the form of parables (What! A Samaritan is my neighbor?) and by gestures of unexpected generosity (What! A leper is healed or a hungry crowd is fed?) In other words, Jesus witnessed for God by (with apologies to my wife) inspiring others to think, wonder and grow. Instead of providing answers ending an encounter, he posed questions or told stories that caused others to be unsettled about old ways or unfair traditions while sensing a new relationship with neighbors and God.

Instead of being God’s witness, I’m frequently witless.

Too often, I try to impress people with what I know.

Too often, I tell people what they should think before they finish speaking.

Too often, when confused (or fearful or angry or spiteful), I don’t seek clarity but raise my voice.

Wit is derived from the Old English witan and the Old High German wizzan. Those two were rooted in ancient Latin and Greek words. But all shared a common meaning: to see or to know. And thus we have witness, witless, witty, dim-witted and more. Someone who sees or knows is a witness. Those who refuse to see or know are witless.

Am I a witness or witless for God?

Asking questions is a start. Not questions that trap (or questions crafted to get me out of chores!), but questions leading to the risky homework of thinking, wondering and growing.

In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” In the encounter with the two-faced Pharisees, Jesus is said to have discerned their malice. I believe he knew they only looked through selfish, self-satisfied eyes, and only schemed to ensnare him. And yet his response, then and in so many other situations, challenged people to “see” beyond the self-destructive, foolish and witless.

To see, instead, with eyes open to how all might think, wonder and grow.

My wife turned the tables on me. “What do you think?” And then, because she loves me so much—and also knows/sees me so well—added, “But don’t worry, I’ll do the dusting.

I can’t stand to dust. Give me vacuuming or cleaning toilets any day. She sees me. She knows me. She loves me.

On we walked. The dog sniffed at another exciting tree.

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  1. Then again, maybe Jesus was just a very good debater, skillful at turning the tables on his dialectical opponents…Or maybe he was both. At any rate, the real question:

    “Am I a witness or witless for God?”

    If one grew up being fed Socrates on mother’s knee (actually as an undergraduate) one becomes used to the idea that knowing nothing, of at least claiming to know nothing, was really a good thing. In modern parlance, it would tend to prevent you from seeing things from a certain perspective, thereby missing some important fact which is not in your comfort zone. There are hundreds of different ways of saying this, but me, being me, must dip into a quote from an unreleased scene in the film Avatar, where Mo’at says, “When you see nothing, then you can see everything.”

    Having the persona of being witless, like Socrates, being totally naive, has the advantage of being able to ask seemingly stupid questions. As long as you don’t push it too far. Jesus was executed for blasphemy. Socrates was executed for being an nuisance.

  2. Shrinks ALWAYS answer a question with a question. Guess you married a quasi-shrink. I thought you were very clever, but like most wives, she’s got your number. You actually tipped her off to your deviousness by asking a question I assume you don’t normally do. Anytime I field a question from someone I know well that seems out of character (I mean, your wife KNOWS you hate housecleaning) it alerts me. You shouldn’t have brought it up. Just when time came to clean, say I’ll do the toilets etc, choosing only things you don’t mind as much. Me, I have a maid in every three weeks and send my laundry out to be washed. More time for writing, if you can afford it.
    Good column. As always, you are witty, write very well and keep the reader going, even a (non-practicing) Jew wading through Jesus’ journey.

    1. There’s common ground somewhere…after all, Jesus was a practicing Jew! When I had a salary I confess I had shirts “professionally” cleaned and ironed every week. ‘Course, then I served a church and wore pants with creases and unwrinkled shirts on most days. Oh, those golden, glory days of “big” bucks!!

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