Dr. Mardy Grothe is the author of a number of delightful books. One is titled, I never metaphor I didn’t like. Another is titled, neverisms: a quotation lover’s guide to things you should never do, never say, or never forget. And another is titled viva la repartee: clever comebacks & witty retorts from history’s great wits & wordsmiths.
In the introduction to viva la repartee, Dr. Grothe defines “repartee” (and “retort”) with several examples. The first is from Winston Churchill.
At a 1912 dinner party in Blenheim Palace—the Churchill family estate—Lady Astor became annoyed at an inebriated Churchill, who was pontificating on some topic. Unable to take any more, she finally blurted out, “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Without missing a beat, Churchill replied:
Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.
Dr. Grothe continues:
Retorts do not occur in a vacuum, but in social interaction, and usually in response to some kind of critical remark. In a pressure-filled situation like this, some exceptional individuals are able to remain calm. But even more important, they’re somehow able to use their wit and their verbal skills to formulate a reply that turns the tables on the aggressor. When most of us regular people are thrust into a similar situation, we don’t perform nearly so well. Many of us crumble, or become tongue-tied. Or we just blurt out some expletive or other unsatisfying remark. Yes, we may eventually come up with a great reply, but it usually comes to our mind far too late, well after it was needed.
Much of what Dr. Grothe writes has cross my mind when reading some of the verbal debates others tried pulling Jesus into. For example, when Jesus was in the temple days prior to His death, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” When they discussed the question amongst themselves, it dawned on them that they had been placed on the sharp horns of a dilemma. They finally responded, “We do not know.” (See Matt. 21:23-27.)
This was a “pressure-filled situation.” Most men would have “crumbled” or been “tongue-tied,” or blurted out some expletive or some “other unsatisfying remark.” Not Jesus. He always seemed to know just what to say.
On another occasion, the Pharisees “plotted how to entangle him in his talk” (Matt. 22:15).
They sent Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt. 22:16-17).
This was one of the hot topics of the day. N. T. Wright sets the scene for us:
Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched into your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee” (Matthew for Everyone, Vol 2, p, 86).
Jesus responded, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). When they heard this, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Jesus was the master teacher and debater. He knew precisely how to answer people…and when to answer them. Not only was He like others able to come back with a response that puts the opponent in their place, He did so in such a way that even modern day readers marvel at His skill.
What other examples of repartee or retort can you think of relating to Jesus’ conversations with others?