Jesus’ relational intelligence (Matthew 15:10-14)

Who’s managing the garden?

I’m blown away by the relational intelligence Jesus used in managing people, even those who threatened his leadership. He’d upset some locals through table fellowship with sinners, but a whole new threat level arrives when Pharisees and Bible teachers from Jerusalem come to undermine him (Matthew 15:1-2). To anyone who knows where the story is headed, this feels ominous.

At times Jesus took a non-confrontational approach. How could the son of David, the anointed ruler of his people, ignore the Roman occupation of their land? From birth, Jesus avoided the Herodian family (2:14, 22). He never announcing the good news of his kingship in Herod’s towns (Tiberias and Sepphoris). Hearing of Herod’s tyranny, he just “withdrew” (4:12; 14:13).

Sometimes Jesus “withdrew” from confrontation with Jewish leaders too (12:14-15; 15:21). This time he argues back (15:3-9). He does this because he cares for the crowd (15:10-11). And the disciples (15:12-20).

Observe what Jesus is doing: even when his leadership is under threat, he identifies the different groups in earshot, responding to each in turn: the teachers (15:3-9), the crowd (15:10-11), and the disciples (15:12-20).

Now, the disciples don’t like where this is going. If you want to learn self-defence, you should probably try a teacher other than Jesus. Rather than save himself, they know he’d give his life to save his people. Disturbingly, that’s what he expects of them too: to pick up their cross and follow him down the same road (10:38; 16:24).

Their fear led them to question Jesus’ relational intelligence:

Matthew 15:12-14 (my translation, compare NIV)
12 Then the disciples came up to tell him, “You do realize that when the Pharisees heard what you said, they fell out with you?”
13 In response, he said, “All the plants that my heavenly Father did not plant will be torn out. 14 Let them go. They are blind leaders. And when the blind lead the blind, they both fall in a hole.”

So, here’s the heart of Jesus’ non-confrontational approach. He believed God was the gardener, and Israel was his planting. It’s not up to the plants to decide who belongs in God’s garden. If the plants thought the gardener didn’t care, they might uproot each other. But the way Jesus told the story, the gardener told the plants not to rip each other out because they would hurt some genuine ones (13:29). So even if these weeds intend to uproot God’s genuine appointed ruler for the sake of their power, Jesus will not uproot them.

In Jesus’ view, these self-appointed guides of God’s people are blind. There’s no need for him to bring them down: if they’re blind they will eventually fall into a hole on their own, without his help.

What Jesus does care about are the blind lemmings who follow the blind guides instead of God’s appointed leader. You can hear the grief, recognizing that those who follow them blindly will be hurt as well. Even so, Jesus refuses to uproot them.

Jesus’ relational intelligence is rooted in his confidence in the gardener, his trust that, even if these weeds try to choke him out, his Father knows how to raise him up so the garden can bloom. Even if the blind guides bury him in a pit, God will raise him up and give him the kingship. When you know that, you don’t need to fight for your position.

So how do you get that kind of relational intelligence? Does it just come to you in the moment? Or is it something you can cultivate? There may be a hint a few verses earlier: Jesus dismissed the disciples and the crowds, to hold a conversation with his Father (14:23).

Have you ever wondered what sort of requests the divinely appointed ruler of earth might have lodged with his Father, the cosmic sovereign?

When the original son of David took on his regal responsibilities, Solomon requested “a discerning heart to govern your people” (1 Kings 3:9). The ultimate son of David has a wisdom greater that Solomon’s (12:42), the relational intelligence to govern God’s garden.

He’s still praying for us.

Update 2022-04-21: Original translation added (replacing NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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