The Abilene Paradox

In the Summer of 1974, an article was published in the Organizational Dynamics journal called “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. It was written by Jerry B. Harvey and the beginning of the article is a personal anecdote:

The July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607) was particularly hot—104 degrees as measured by the Walgreen’s Rexall Ex-Lax temperature gauge. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable — evern potentially enjoyable. There was a fan going on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the condi- tions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment. “Shuffle em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the ap- propriate perspective on the table.

All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman — that is, it was until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?”

But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.

Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat in front of the fan for a long time in silence. Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

No one spoke. Finally my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you all’?” I said. “Don’t put me in the ‘you air group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”

My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

Her father entered the conversation abruptly. “Hell!” he said.

He proceeded to expand on what was already absolutely clear. “Listen, 1 never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.

Read – John 2:13-17

Jesus, Prince of Peace, from the line of David, walked into the temple, saw what was happening and turned over the tables, he made a whip out of cords and drove all of the sheep and cattle out, and then yelled, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

From the line of David. You must never forget the lineage of Jesus once again that lineage surfaces, this time in verse 17. “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” If you were to flip back in your Bible to Psalm 69:9 you would read these words from David (yes, that David): “for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.”

Hundreds of thousands of Jews traveled for Passover. Many would travel long distances to come to temple and often could not make the journey with their required animal sacrifice in tow. Additionally a Temple Tax was required and, by religious law was not able to be paid in the Roman or Greek currency.

Not to worry, you could exchange your Greek or Roman money for Tyrian Shekels, the accepted Temple Tax payment, and you could also buy your animal sacrifice right there on the spot, inside the Temple.

As you might imagine this arrangement was a breeding ground for unscrupulous business practices and the fees charged for the exchange of currency were egregious. Likewise the markup to purchase a sacrifice was also inflated obscenely.

There were likely many people standing in the temple that day who were uncomfortable with what was going on. Just like the Abilene Paradox they looked around and assumed everyone else was okay, so they didn’t want to rock the boat. They wanted to keep the peace.

But not Jesus, not the Prince of Peace. He turned over the tables, scattering the coins around, he drove out the cattle and sheep. And I imagine at the top of his lungs he yelled, “Not in my Father’s house, you don’t!”

Each member of Jerry’s family climbed into the car a little perturbed, but basically okay. They rode in a hot car all the way to Abilene and ate a meal that was less than satisfying. They climbed back in the car each more angry than before. By the time they got home I imagine they were seething internally.

This wasn’t the first Passover that this behavior had taken place, but it was the first Passover where Jesus showed up and saw what was happening. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, took action. He came from a long line of people who followed their ancestor David’s words and were zealous about the house of the Lord.

The disciples INSTANTLY recognized what was happening. They knew the words of David from the Psalms. You see Jesus knew about the Abilene Paradox long before Jerry Harvey. He wasn’t about to be put in a position where he knew what he needed to do and avoided it to simply keep a temporary peace.

Jesus, in this story teaches us a lesson that only the Prince of Peace could teach:

Peace for its own sake isn’t peace at all.

Sing – Silent Night


Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.

About the Author

Austin Lee

Austin is the creator of the Advent Guys and has always loved pushing himself and others to critically examine their faith and grow in their walk with Christ. When he's not writing about Advent, you can find him exploring the wild places all around the United States with his wife, Courtney, and dog, Willow.

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