Patronizing in the Bible

Neither Then Nor Now

I found "patronizing" in my Bible reading today [Mark 5:38-40]. Of course the word "patronizing" isn't there, the culture of unearned affirmation did not exist until less than a hundred years ago, so there was no need for a word describing failure to do it, but the situation certainly called for it (if ever). The 12-year-old daughter of a high ranking religious leader had died, and Jesus came riding up on his high horse -- there was no actual horse in the story, neither then nor now, but the term "high horse" shares vocabulary space with "patronizing" as a metaphor for offering unwanted advice and/or help from a position of presumed advantage -- and these professional mourners were paid to be there to help family members work through their grief, and they were doing their job (no difference there), and Jesus was acknowledged as a social (rabbi) and technical (healer) and (as yet unkown, Son of God and King of the Universe) actual high status, except these paid staff workers knew otherwise in their hearts (again no difference) because they knew the kid was dead, nevermind what this idiot outsider said about her just being asleep. But unearned affirmation did not happen in that culture, so they had no word "patronizing" in their vocabulary. They had nothing more powerful than to ridicule this idiot who promptly expelled them from the room so he could do what he was there to do. The outcome was essentially the same in the current scene, but instigated differently. Any modern woman of low self-esteem (having received more unearned than earned affirmation, or maybe only valuing the unearned variety greater) would have called out Jesus as "patronizing" in that situation. Or probably only thought it (which means she is the one doing the patronizing), because they never actually say so until their anger boils up and spills out over everything.

The word "condescend" occurs once in the KJV, Rom.12:16, where it is encouraged as a good thing to do, and not at all what the people who use the word today want it to mean. Which is probably why it's not used in any modern translation I know of. The Greek word it translates has a completely different meaning "carried away" and my dictionary cites Rom.12:16 as a special case in offering as an alternate meaning "associate with humble people" (which is what the Latin root of the English word means). None of these meanings is anything like the modern insult, because it is a thoroughly modern idea, completely foreign to anything God is responsible for.

Tom Pittman
2022 June 14

Postscript, not quite four weeks later, the Pastor at church defined "patronizing is doing for people what they can and should do for themselves." It's certainly not the dictionary definition, but maybe if you bend over backwards while standing on your head, it might be descriptive of "giving instructions to people who don't want or need instructions." Or maybe -- because this was in church where everybody is assumed to be a Relationshipist, especially the Pastor -- the word is nothing more than a meaningless token of disaffirmation. This Pastor is usually more accurate with his words than that, so I choose not to consider this occasion to be an exception.

My superior at work came at the problem from a different angle. "Forget the past," he said, "it can't be changed. Don't use any negatives, just give them something positive to do." A pastor of another church put it more succinctly: "Never criticize." I'm guessing he could not follow his own advice, because his music ministers kept leaving in a rush of tears. Maybe asking the person to do something positive in the future will work. I'm willing to try anything that isn't illegal, immoral or fattening. At least it seems like better advice than they give at church (see my July 11 Blog post).