How to handle tomatoes

In Sunday’s sermon, I talked about the pernicious problem of the “Tomato Effect.”

This is the concept, broadly considered, that people will resist new things—foods, medicines, ideas—because they do not square with conventional wisdom or otherwise carry with them emotional baggage. (For hundreds of years Americans eschewed tomatoes because they were thought to be poisonous—despite ample proof to the contrary.)

Our text was the parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus, and in the “punchline” of the parable Jesus chillingly asserts (through the mouth of Abraham), “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16.31). Indeed, this prophecy already came to pass before Jesus ascended into heaven (see Matthew 28.11-15). The Tomato Effect was in full force.

You have Tomatoes in your life. A friend, or a family member, who is just dead-set against faith. It doesn’t matter how much you reason with them, how much proof you offer, they simply won’t hear it. So how can Tomatoes ever be persuaded to change their hearts and minds? If such people aren’t convinced by Jesus rising from the dead, how can we have any hope for winning them for God’s Kingdom?

The short answer is: they can’t, and we can’t.

*We* cannot and do not convert anyone, nor does anyone “convert themselves”; convert is a verb that people can only put in the passive voice, with God as the subject. Conversion is ever and always the work of the Holy Spirit, operating through God’s Word. So as St. Peter writes, we are “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1.23). It’s not the “perishable seed” of human invention that changes hearts, but the “imperishable seed” of the gospel.

The longer answer is that, in God’s infinite wisdom and mystery, He has chosen to do His persuading via the Word through frail and imperfect messengers like you and me. And so considered from this human horizon, recognizing that ultimately the all-surpassing power belongs not to us but to the Lord, we might reflect on how best to handle “tomatoes”—that is, how to witness in such a way that those who do not yet have “ears to hear” might at least give a listen.

Help comes from a ready-at-hand resource.

As it happens, our Sunday Bible study on Philemon has furnished us with some tools for testifying to the Lord in a way that, humanly speaking, can help tomato-infected people to hear. We have been learning how St. Paul employed the insights of classical rhetoric, especially the “modes of persuasion,” in encouraging Philemon to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus as a Christian brother.

In his classic treatise The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle laid out these three modes of persuasion:

  1. Ethos—Building rapport and establishing credibility with your audience
  2. Logos—Persuading the mind of your audience with logical argumentation
  3. Pathos—Persuading the heart of your audience with emotional appeals

It is best to think of these modes as interlocking chains rather than independent tools. The most effective persuasion will employ all three rather than relying only on one or two. With this in mind, let me offer five ways to handle Tomatoes.

1. Use honey rather than vinegar (Ethos).

The old proverb holds true that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (why you are trying to catch flies at all is another matter), and reflects well the idea of Ethos. In Bible study we’ve talked about how Paul uses a little “holy flattery” in order to prepare Philemon to hear what he has to say. It isn’t disingenuous or manipulative, it’s simply an effective way win a hearing. Don’t come at people with your Word-of-God-guns blazing. Instead, start by commending their curiosity, or their desire to know truth. We want to do the same! Which brings me to point #2.

2. Find common ground (Ethos).

Sure, there’s a lot that you disagree about. Who is Jesus? What is salvation? Are humans innately good or sinful? And so on. Don’t start with what your bones of contention, though; start with your shared experience or understanding. This might be trivial (you both root for the same baseball team) or significant (you’ve endured the same trial). Point is, by looking for points of agreement to begin with you build rapport and send the message, “Hey, I’m a human, too.” Which is always a good message.

3. Be transparent about your perspective (Logos). 

Christians get a bad rap when they are perceived as being underhanded in their witness—representing themselves as being or believing something other than what is actually the case. If you want to establish credibility and—paradoxically—show yourself more reasonable, be transparent about the ground of your reason. The Creeds are helpful in this respect: here is a thumbnail sketch of what you believe about the world. And always ask, “What do you believe about the world?” It both shows humility and also makes the subtle but important point that everyone is working from some point of view—even those who claim to be merely “neutral.”

4. Get to the heart of the matter (Pathos). 

The temptation in Christian evangelism and apologetics is to try and score points and win arguments, as if the kingdom of God were a debate tournament. The goal isn’t to win arguments; the goal is to convey the Gospel. That is not to say that making a logical case about, say, the reliability of the Scriptures is unimportant (as I’ve recently argued). It’s simply to warn against falling so deeply into the thicket of objections that you never make it to the liberating field of the good news. Always seek to bring it back to Christ.

5. Share your story (Pathos).

Perhaps it goes without saying, but for better or for worse people respond more to stories than they do to arguments. Personal testimony within the context of a relationship carries immense weight, and helps to cut through many defenses. Consider the example of the man born blind whom Jesus healed in John 9. The poor guy is being pressed like he’s on trial, until he gives his exasperated, classic response:

For the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9.24-25).

Though I was blind, now I see. I can’t explain it, but I know it to be the case. Take it for what it’s worth.

But this account also provides that final caveat. By all accounts these men did not change their minds. So at the end of the day, whenever we’re dealing with the tomato effect and faith, we strive to be faithful in testifying to what we have seen and heard…and then leave it up to the Lord. He, and He alone, brings people into the kingdom. Let Him handle the Tomatoes.

Categories: Pastor's BlogTags: , , , , ,