Third Sundy in Ordinary Time – a relection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

One says: ‘I follow Paul’; another: ‘I follow Apollos’; another: ‘I follow Peter’; and another: ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups!” 1 Corinthians 1, 12-13
Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4, 12-23

In their study of groups, social psychologists have identified a process which they call differentiation. This process describes how groups deal with the presence within them of potentially clashing individual differences: personal characteristics, talents, styles of dealing with people and issues, personal limitations and mannerisms, and even gender. In the early stages of a group’s formation and consolidation there is often present an unspoken demand, or even a clearly stated one, for conformity. Such levelling of differences often ends up offering only cold comfort, because it actually tries to deny the fact that individual and factional differences exist and gather strength. In the long term, they often end up pleasing no one and frustrating everyone. This phenomenon exists in political parties, in service organisations, in parishes, in Religious Congregations, in Churches and in any kind of group one cares to name.

In time, such differences are allowed to emerge and are, in fact, tolerated, but often only to a certain degree. Group members begin to caricature them and identify them as this faction or that. “Neutral” members of the organisation are often pressured to take sides. Psychologists suggest that factions are actually the way in which an organisation expresses some aspects of itself which all members find it hard to manage. For example, all members of an organisation might be experiencing difficulty with leadership, internal structures, a change in vision, and/or policy, but different factions begin to believe that they are the only ones who have to deal with such challenges. The different factions often conclude that issues and challenges can be met only by members urging their faction leaders to attack one another. All that is happening is that the various factions are actually mirroring the ambivalence all the members are experiencing about issues and challenges which their organisation is facing. The organisation slides into a kind of paralysis that prevents it from dealing with differences creatively and collaboratively. The various factions end up clinging to their positions with a sense of righteousness.

Something like this seems to have taken a grip on the early Christian community of Corinth, about which Paul writes in today’s second reading. It would seem that factions in that community were out of control. However, in rebuking them he was calling for unity rather than uniformity. We only have to dip into the last three chapters (14-16) of his letter to the Romans to see how he welcomes diversity, pointing out that God works in different ways through the consciences of all of us. Unity is not achieved through conformity, but by collaborating with one another and sharing the richness of our different gifts. At the same time, he warns against the potential destructiveness of factions and dissentions. It is clear to Paul that Jesus valued the individuality of each of his apostles, and reprimanded them when he found them in a petty squabble about who was the best and greatest.

Today’s gospel describes how Jesus put together his team of disciples, with different personalities and talents, to join him in proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, in calling people to a change of attitude and heart, and in curing people from physical illness and psychological paralysis. He invites them to join him in fishing for human lives. But they, too, had to deal with their differences of personality. Peter soon revealed himself as headstrong and impetuous; James as rigid and sharp-tongued; John as sensitive and gentle. We are told that “Andrew was also there”, and left to wonder if that was damning him with faint praise. We have all met people who are there when the roll is called, but are more of a hindrance than a help, who lack drive, energy and initiative. Not even Jesus was able to rid the disciples of tension, struggle with difference, and competition. They struggled with the limitations of the human condition to the bitter end. In the Acts of the Apostles we see how difference and squabble overflowed into disagreements between Peter and Paul. Similar tensions and differences have been present in the Church throughout its entire history. They can be seen even now in Rome between Francis and Benedict, among members of the Vatican curia, among ordinary Christians who have polarised themselves into radicals and conservatives (labels which, incidentally, achieve nothing). This leads to the birth of factions, and the adherents of the different factions are adamant that leaders will be trusted only when they come from among those who are different in the way they themselves are different.

We have all seen this phenomenon at work in political parties, trade unions, sporting clubs and aid agencies where members end up competing for power and position. But let’s not pretend that it does not exist in Churches and Religious Congregations. It is truly pathetic when the way we deal with difference ends up destroying co-operative and collaborative effort in the service of others, especially the most needy. It becomes a stupid waste of expertise, resources, human energy and intellectual capital. We hesitate to co-operate to address real needs in our world and our Church because of partisan and unquestioning allegiance to an Escrivá, a Mother Angelica, a Lefevre, a Milingo, to liberationists of various hues, to charismatic enthusiasts, to this kind of parish or that. Surely this is not the best we can do.

The Gospel calls us to contact and collaborate with people who differ from us, both within and beyond the Christian community. This generally involves risk and personal discomfit. It means venturing into engagement with people who seem strange to us, putting aside our fears and prejudices, with the openness of genuine fisherfolk. We must search for common ground with them as promoters of peace and justice. After all, acceptance, peace and justice were the foundation of Jesus’ mission. We may not all see Jesus in exactly the same way. But what fish knows the one doing the fishing or even his or her name?

For Matthew, the arrest of John the Baptist and the decision of Jesus to launch his public ministry in Galilee signalled the arrival of a new era for the people of Israel – the arrival of the Messiah and the appearance of a “great light” of deliverance (See today’s first reading, Isaiah 8, 23-9, 3). The people of Galilee had a reputation for being open to the new – new ideas and new ways of living and acting. The great Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, a native of Jerusalem, wrote in admiration of the people of first-century Galilee: “They were fond of innovation and, by nature, disposed to change…The Galileans were never destitute of courage…They were even more anxious for honour than for gain.” Galilee, then, provided a receptive climate for Jesus to begin his mission. Unlike other teachers, Jesus selected ordinary fishermen to join him in a mission that would demand of them radical change of mind and heart. Similarly, Jesus invites each of us in our poverty, pain and despair to join him in fishing for those in need, pain and hopelessness.