October 19, 2016
In my last blog, I discussed the importance of listening to others if we are to have any success as evangelizers. If our goal is to help others get to know Jesus, rather than simply to memorize facts of the faith, we must listen, and help them find the answers to their questions.
One Sunday morning, I was reflecting on the gospel of the day, the Good Samaritan, and it struck me – Jesus used basic listening skills masterfully. In Luke 11, the story begins with a scholar of the law asking Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
That’s a big question. Of course, Jesus knew the answer to the question. But did he offer an answer? No. He responds with an open-ended question: “What is written in the law? How do you see it?”
Why didn’t Jesus just answer the question? Maybe because he was more concerned with the person than with the answer; maybe because the answer is actually a relationship. This is a key lesson in evangelization. The goal is to make a disciple – a follower and life-long learner – not just someone who knows what we know or says what we say.
So how does this apply to us as Catholics who wish to share our faith with others?
Well, how do you respond when someone asks you a question like, “Why do you worship Mary?” or “Why do you confess to a priest?”
These are loaded questions, but there are reasons and previous experiences that trigger these questions. This is a great opportunity not to get defensive and respond, like Jesus, with an open-ended question: “What have you heard about Catholics worshiping Mary?” or “What is your experience with confession?" And then listen intently, with openness and care, to the response.
Open ended questions show that you want to understand the person you're speaking with, that you care about them, that you are more interested in dialogue than debate. It also gives us the ability to formulate our response in their language, in a way that makes sense to them.
When we give immediate, generalized answers, we end discovery and begin debate. When we ask open ended questions, we open the door to dialogue, discovery and authentic pursuit of God.
Circling back to the story of the Good Samaritan, when the scholar responds to Jesus' question, he answers with the greatest commandments – love God, love your neighbor.
Jesus then affirms the scholar for his answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
Who doesn’t like to hear that they are right?
Then Jesus offers an option. Jesus does not ask permission in this case because he is simply affirming the option offered by the scholar himself. This is important. The scholar came up with the solution. He owns it. People are much more likely to follow a plan that they came up with themselves.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The scholar came up with the plan so he has ownership of it. However, he realized that it is going to cost him, and he wants to limit that cost.
"Who is my neighbor?” he asks.
In other words, “Define who my neighbor is so I know who I have to love (and who I don’t have to love).” To phrase it another way, “How can I limit my inconvenience and still attain eternal life?” or “What is the minimum I have to do?”
Once again, Jesus does not give an answer. Jesus realizes that the scholar knew the words to say but did not understand what it meant to live the answer. So Jesus gently guides the scholar deeper and redirects the conversation with a story and a follow up question: “Who acted like a neighbor?”
The scholar responds, “The one who showed mercy”.
You see, the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “For whom can I be a neighbor here and now?” The neighbor is not a small group of people we should be nice to. Rather, the neighbor is who each of us is called to become. Jesus invites us to be neighbor to all the people already in our lives, not just the exceptional “poor” person we see periodically, although they are our neighbors, too.
Jesus encourages us to be like the Samaritan – right now, right where we are, to everyone.
Jesus evangelized through effective listening. Jesus asked open ended questions which led to dialogue. Jesus affirmed the scholar. Jesus gave options in the scholars own words. Because Jesus listened to the scholar, cared for him and guided him, the scholar discovered and encountered the meaning behind the answer.
Chris Benzinger is the director of mission and evangelization for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. He founded the Lifeteen Summer Camp Covecrest, and he lived and worked there for 10 years.