Bread – Red Herrings

February 20, 2013

Readings for Wednesday, February 20, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 63:15-64:9; 1 Tim. 3; Mk 11:27-12:12; Psalms 101,109,119:121-144


A “red herring” is a statement, objection, question, or some other kind of verbal or written engagement which is designed to cause the other person to go down a “rabbit trail,” and to derail that person from the main argument. Red herrings are used for distraction, but they are also used to create a kind of self-destruction, where a person who is making a good point is now sidelined into trivial matters. Typically, a person who poses a red herring could care less about the answer; he or she is only trying to get a reaction.

Why do red herrings work? Because somehow we feel like we have to respond to every objection, answer every question, address every concern, discuss every possibility, and defend all attacks. Since the idea of “all” does not allow for major and minor issues, questions, or concerns, it is possible to set up a red herring and then let the person answering the question go chase it.

Jesus dealt with a red herring in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. The temple big dogs have confronted Jesus and asked Him “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them [miracles, etc.].” Mk. 11:28 Jesus answers them by giving them a red herring – “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” Mk. 11:30 Inherent in both questions is the issue of the skeptic – will you believe the answer even if it is true, but unverifiable in man’s reasoning of what is and is not verifiable? Since the big dogs could not conclude that John’s baptism was from heaven, in spite of evidence in front of them, Jesus knew that it did not matter what He answered them regarding His authority, they would not believe the answer. Their world view was so fixed against the possibility of someone like Jesus, His presence in front of them, His miracles, and His fulfillment of ancient prophecy, could all be ignored. The purpose of the question about authority was not to determine whether or not He did have authority or verify that it really was from God the Father, it was to bog Him down in endless proofs (which they would ignore anyway), endless “rabbit trails” of logic and reason, and endless defenses, leading (so they hoped) to some kind of logic error which they could then pounce upon to bring Jesus down. So Jesus called it the way it was – “Folks, your question is a red herring and I am going to ignore it and move on.” (actually, what He said was “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Mk. 11:33)

If we are confronted with red herrings as we present Jesus Christ to the world, we have two choices. One is to try to respond and to thereby get lost in the weeds of debate. One example recently given to me was this – “If Jesus really existed and we have all these books written about him, then why isn’t there more reports in secular history books, hard evidence, etc.?” This is a red herring because all of the very things that that person cited to show lack of proof are actually the items, to the person wearing the lens of faith, which show great proof. Oh, I could have argued the rational basis for believing that it really happened – the eyewitness testimony, the lack of “contrary” proof that it did not happen given the desire of the Pharisees and others at the time to disprove it, the miracles, the appearances, the fact that the Bible is not only God’s revelation but also a very good history book which often reports the good, bad, and the ugly, etc. Some people might think that that is the way I should have gone, making a stand-up defense of the faith. But I sensed that this was not question arising from earnest search for Christ, but a red herring to prompt hours of essentially fruitless conversation. I therefore reversed it by answering the question this way – “for a person who has not been given the gift of faith by the mercy of God, there would not be enough proof of Jesus Christ even if I had a video tape of His death and resurrection.”

So the second thing we can do when confronted with a red herring is to drop it, is to let it go. We will never intellectualize a person into the Kingdom; we will never argue a person into faith. All we can do is to fully live the life in Christ He has appointed us to, speak plainly and boldly of the truth we know of God’s mercy and salvation, avoid endless arguments over genealogies (red herrings), and let God handle the rest.

But that is so hard. That red herring is so tempting to deal with because we know the answer. But we need to avoid the temptation and persevere. God help us to do that!


© 2013 GBF


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