[Text: Acts 17]
This is the text of a short talk I gave last spring for Q-Commons in Lancaster, where the themes included neighborliness, leadership, and the relevance of faith. I chose as my topic the neighborly art of listening before speaking, as exemplified by Paul in Athens. I’m re-posting this today in anticipation of my participation on a panel discussing race in America a couple of weeks from now, where I plan again to emphasize the courteous decision to listen well to our neighbors.
I want to lift up for you an ancient idea, and then give you a biblical picture of it to remember it by.
Here’s the old idea, from the biblical book of Proverbs:
“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)
Listening before speaking is slow, patient work that requires both self-control and self-denial. It comprises both a stepping back from the stage and the honoring of a speaker who is not you. I’d suggest, and maybe you have observed, that we in America are not characterized by either self-control or self-denial, and as a result we typically make very poor listeners, especially to those people we deem very much different than ourselves.
I’ve heard frustration about American listening expressed by some voices that I’ve been trying hard to listen to recently, the voices of my African-American neighbors. As I’ve listened and read, I’ve realized that this is nothing new. Here’s W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1903 (so he’s using an older vocabulary):
“We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence.”
I am hearing the same idea expressed in modern terms by my black neighbors today. Here’s Ekemini Uwan, a graduate student at Westminster Seminary, writing her frustration just this past November:
“Either talk about race with some level of aptitude, precision, and intelligence or don’t speak on it at all. Anything less is patronizing.”
And from Jemar Tisby, a pastor and educator, speaking this January about the past year of racial tension in our country:
“It reeks of paternalism to come to the table that you haven’t been sitting at, listen for a second, if that, and then offer suggestions or solutions.”
To answer before listening—that is folly and shame. Surely we can do better. This is our challenge, as citizens in a complex and multifaceted country, as neighbors in a diverse community. So here’s a biblical picture of how we might make courteous listening (before speaking) a reality in our own neighborhoods and conversations.
When I say “a biblical picture,” don’t think I’m going to tell you anything particularly spiritual or religious. It’s just that I know a good story that illustrates this ancient idea, and it’s found in one of the books of the Christian Bible, the one we call Acts.
As you may know, Acts was written by a Greek doctor named Luke, who actually was himself a very good listener—he took the time to sit down with a lot of eyewitnesses and came away with two volumes of investigative journalism. One of these books, Acts, tells the story of the first followers of “the Way,” a strange new offshoot of Judaism that centered on a man named Jesus. And one of the leaders of that new movement was a Middle-Eastern man named Paul.
Now, Paul was a man on a mission, a mission of communication. He was burdened with a message that he wanted to get out to people in all the diverse communities of the Greco-Roman world. And it’s in one of his encounters with people who were to him significantly “other,” the Athenians, that Paul’s skills as a listener truly shine.
You probably realize that Paul’s message about his savior Jesus would have been both alien and challenging to these Athenians. For one thing, Paul’s singular, personal deity bore little resemblance to their multiple (and moody) gods and goddesses, or to the impersonal divine force conceived of by many of the philosophers in this urbane cultural center. And grasping Jesus’ significance in human history required the back-story of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Paul’s audience in the Areopagus likely did not have.
So Paul needed to build bridges of communication to get his very foreign message across, at least to make a start; and what is suggested in Luke’s narrative is that he did so—first—by listening carefully. Basically, he was observant, and he did his homework. What he came up with is a fascinating bit of apologetic discourse, but it’s also worth knowing as an excellent illustration of considerate listening.
Stuck in this city on an unplanned vacation, waiting for his friends, Paul puts the time to good use and even comes away from the tourist attractions with the opening lines of a sermon. As he begins speaking, he shows right away that he’s taken the time to observe their context:
“Men of Athens, he says, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul proceeds then to introduce his theological beliefs very tactfully, aware that this audience wouldn’t be familiar with the vocabulary that he might naturally use among his Jewish brethren in a synagogue. He speaks of creation, of providence, of the sovereignty of God—all ideas that his Athenian neighbors can track with in a general sense:
He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
And then, quite unusually for something recorded in the Christian Scriptures, Paul does a riff on a couple pieces of pagan literature:
“He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Note that he didn’t have time on this visit to duck into the local library and bone up on Greek poetry. These quotes are the fruit of his previous study—this man has done his homework well before he even encountered these global neighbors, and he has listened well enough – paid attention well enough – that these poetic details have lodged in his mind.
As you might expect, Paul’s punchline in this speech is about Jesus; but there’s something UNexpected about the way he puts it. He ends his intro to Christian theology with a provocative statement about judgment and immortality—two more categories of thought that would have been shared by these Athenians:
“[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
That’s the Jesus part of this speech—that’s all he gives—blink and you’ll miss it. But how considerate of Paul here, not to burden his audience with unfamiliar words like Christ and sin—there would be time to fill in the blanks later.
How kind of him also to avoid the condescending tones, the disregard and dismissal that might have colored his speech to these “others.” Paul did not speak shameful folly, because he listened, well before he ever opened his mouth. He was observant, and he did his homework. And by this, he earned the right to speak in their neighborhood.
To answer before listening—that is folly and shame. Be the difference, neighbors. Be observant; do your homework. And before speaking, always have the courtesy to listen.
All biblical quotations are from the ESV.
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