Year A 2014
7 September 2014
The readings this weekend touch on an aspect of our human relationships that is taxing both within and outside of our church faith community. They tackle the responsibility we have to deal with people who have offended us personally – and to do this in love, which is not easy. It is often easier in these situations to choose a path of silence that avoids conflict or alternatively a confrontational path that is inevitably judgemental and unkind.
In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel writes that he has been given the responsibility of being God’s watchman; entrusted to warn God’s people of the consequences of their sinfulness and urge them to turn away from evil. God tells him that if he chooses to remain silent rather than speak out, he will be held personally responsible for their fate and will suffer the same unhappy destiny.
Paul in the verses we heard from his letter to the Romans has a very simple message: “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel follows on from the first reading.
Jesus had been with his disciples, followers and detractors long enough to know that in ego-sensitive communities and families there are going to be disagreements, differences of opinion, hurt feelings, mistakes and disappointments. He also understood that without a means to resolve these conflicts, the consequences could be very damaging. That is as true in our society today as it was 2000 years ago. One might have thought that in a world that is super connected and driven by social media, we’d have found more effective ways of handling our personal conflicts but I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, more often than not, the ease of communicating our hurt feelings and frustrations to a wide audience reduces the likelihood of an amicable outcome and complicates the conflict even further.
So let’s have a look at what Jesus says we should do to find a loving resolution when we feel that someone has deeply offended us.
First thing says Jesus is to tell the person; and that person only. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is remaining silent…….. and letting the grievance stew in our hearts and imaginations. The stew eventually comes to the boil and we’re then likely to act rashly and unkindly. Often, just speaking about it can make things better. Tell doesn’t mean write a letter or an email; or send an sms, whatsapp, mixit, or use any other means of written communication. Tell means speak. Tell the person privately…. that means no complaining to someone else, no anonymous letters, no cryptic comments on facebook.
We often find it difficult to tell someone face to face that they have offended us but it is the surest way to get a favourable response and a change in behaviour.
And we must be motivated by a sense of love. Often we are motivated by a desire to inflict pain in return. That’s jungle justice. Or we may be motivated by our perception of our own goodness. That’s arrogance. Our motivation should be to tell the persons how their words or actions have hurt us. That’s not the same as criticising their behaviour; that’s likely to elicit an aggressive response and create an argument. If those who have hurt us are made aware of the effect of their actions on us and are motivated to respond in love, we can expect a change of heart and behaviour and to have gained a friend.
If that doesn’t work, Jesus suggests that we try again but this time with the assistance of a wise person or persons. They’re not joining us to support our argument or to prove wrongdoing; they’re there to help find reconciliation. “For when two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
It may well be that we are the ones who are in the wrong and we need the wisdom of others to see our shortcomings and mistakes.
If that still fails, we must take our personal troubles to a higher level of expertise and wisdom. In Matthew’s gospel he’s addressing conflict within the Christian community specifically and that authority is the Church. It is in an environment of Christian prayer and love that conflicts in personal relationships are best resolved.
The next step seems a little out of character. Matthew says that if all the previous steps have failed then the person who has wronged us is to be regarded as a Gentile or a tax-collector. The first impression is that the person must be abandoned as hopeless and beyond redemption but Jesus cannot have meant that. He never set limits to human forgiveness or conversion.
Jesus spoke of tax-collectors and sinners with welcoming gentleness and love.
In the words of William Barclay : “It may be that what Jesus said was something like this: ‘When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when he remains stubborn and obdurate, you may think that he is no better than a renegade tax-collector, or even a godless Gentile. Well, you may be right. But I have not found the tax-gatherers and the Gentiles hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, you may still win him (over), as I have done.’”
What Jesus says is not an injunction to walk away from people; it is a challenge to win them over with love. It is not a statement that some people are hopeless; it is a statement that Jesus has found no one hopeless – and neither must we.