When to stay silent.


“My mantra is: put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

This morning we woke up to the news that former Australia captain and legendary cricket commentator Richie Benaud has died at the age of 84. A fine leg-spin bowler he proved to be brilliant tactician so that he never lost a Test series as Australia captain.

However, for me his main contribution to the noble sport of cricket was his remarkable skill as a BBC commentator, not just in that peculiarly English institution of Test Match Special but on BBC television.

I recall watching one particular Test Match in the 1980’s while visiting my parents.   The commentator informed us that he was now handing over to Ritchie Benaud.  “Morning everyone” – his trademark greeting.  And then – and then, nothing.

We watched the bowler bowl, the batsman bat and the fielder field – but as for Richie, not a word.  I commented to my father that Bernaud had not said a single word.  “Oh, he often does that,” my Dad replied. Clearly Ritchie had learned the difficult skill of ‘shutting up.’

He himself commented: “The key thing was to learn the value of economy with words and to never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see.”

Learning to keep your mouth shut is a skill prized by the writer of the Old Testament book of Proverbs.  For example, chapter 11 verse 12:

“Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent.”

And Jesus knew the importance of keeping his mouth shut, especially in those contexts where everyone is expecting you to say something.  So when his religious opponents threw at his feet the woman caught in adultery, what does Jesus say?   Nothing,  “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” (John 8:6)

Even so they kept on questioning him, John reports.  Eventually, he stands up and simply says ‘’Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  That’s it, that’s all he says to them.

We all know Jesus’ exchange with Pontius Pilate. But what about his famous interview with “the fox,” Herod Antipas the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, infamous son of an infamous father?  It only appears in Luke’s Gospel and is brilliantly parodied in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Herod, it seems, had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time, not least to be entertained by some spectacular miracle.  Luke tells us that Herod  questioned Jesus at some length.  Here is an opportunity to witness to one of the most powerful men in the region

And Jesus’ reaction?  He says not a word. He refuses to respond to the tetrarch’s questioning, even though during the entire interrogation the chief priests and scribes are arguing strongly against him.   For here is the prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7).

Whatever his opponents said about Jesus, the one criticism we never hear was that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth was garrulous.

Last month Pope Francis in commenting on Jesus’ Beatitudes said: “Few words, simple words, but practical for all. Because Christianity is a practical religion: it is not just to be imagined, it is to be practiced.

Above all it is in the practice of prayer that Jesus urges us to speak to God without hesitation, deviation and especially without repetition.  Our instinct is to measure the fervency of our prayer by the word count.  The very opposite, says Jesus.  Keep it simple, stay focussed.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  (Matthew 6:7)

We live in a world of empty phrases.  Not so in the Kingdom of God; there is no need to fill the vacuum with lots of words for the simple reason that there is no vacuum to fill. Such is the relationship we may have with God as our heavenly Father, as our Abba, through knowing Jesus.

So today we thank God for the life of Ritchie Benaud and his respect for his audience through his wonderful silences.