by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“If your brother/sister does something wrong, go and have it out with him/her alone, between your two selves.” Matthew 18, 15-20
The early Christian writer and father of western theology, Tertullian reported that, in referring to Christians, ordinary people in the Rome of his time were heard to exclaim: “See how they love one another!” (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Harper and Collins, New York 2010). While the cynics among us might be inclined to say that Christians have gone only downhill since then, it would be remiss of them and us not to acknowledge that an enormous amount of disaster relief and outreach to the needy and marginalized in the history of the world has been carried out by Christians in the name of the Gospel.
The challenge of Jesus in today’s gospel to all of us to examine ourselves on our record to reach out to others in reconciliation is a challenge that is relevant to a world that is inclined to seek solutions to differences and disagreements through threats and shows of military might. It’s a challenge that Paul saw as relevant to the very early Christian community of Corinth and that moved him to write:
And how dare you take each other to court! When you think you have been wronged, does it make any sense to go before a court that knows nothing of God’s ways instead of a family of Christians? The day is coming when the world is going to stand before a jury made up of followers of Jesus. If someday you are going to rule on the world’s fate, wouldn’t it be a good idea to practise on some of these smaller cases? Why, we’re even going to judge angels! So why not these everyday affairs? As these disagreements and wrongs surface, why would you ever entrust them to the judgment of people you don’t trust in any other way?
I say this as bluntly as I can to wake you up to the stupidity of what you’re doing. Is it possible that there isn’t one level-headed person among you who can make fair decisions when disagreements and disputes come up? I don’t believe it. And here you are taking each other to court before people who don’t even believe in God! How can they render justice if they don’t believe in the God of justice?
These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you’re doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family. 1 Corinthians 6, 4-8
In addition, today’s gospel reading attributes to Jesus an exhortation on the process of reconciliation to be followed by his disciples whenever divisions and disputes occurred. Difficult as it may be, reconciling with one another is arguably the primary plank of Christian living, because it is an expression of the primary law of love. Jesus himself had stressed that the greatest commandment is to love God, and that the only way to demonstrate love of God is the manner in which we reach out in love to everyone we encounter.
The impact of Christianity is as powerful as the witness of those who claim to be Christian. The great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth once said that if those who claimed to be followers of Christ really knew what they were committing themselves to, “their number would melt like snow before the sun”. And the noted homiletics professor at Emory University, Georgia, Fred Craddock, 1928-2015, observed that “throughout history, Christianity had civilized millions, moralized thousands and converted a few.” Hardly a record of which to be proud!
The whole point of what Jesus says is that break-downs in relationships in any community worthy of the Gospel have to be mended. When divisions occur in families, religious communities, parishes or friendship groups, they should not be put under the carpet or treated with silence, whatever their cause. Fear of mentioning a “forbidden” topic such as someone’s drunkenness, gambling addiction or abuse (verbal or physical) can turn into a powerful controlling mechanism. Warnings to say nothing, to not mention a delicate issue, or to keep quiet in order to avoid an emotional explosion can cause us all to shrivel up and die. Jesus urges us not to tolerate the kind of silence that stands as an obstruction to reconciliation and healing. His approach to reconciliation means that we have to be big enough to put aside anger, self-pity and wounded pride and take the first step towards mending whatever it is that separates us from others. That means actually speaking to the person we feel has wronged us.
As a matter of interest, the only petition with a condition in the prayer that Jesus taught us is the one about forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Clearly, Jesus knew that forgiveness would always need special emphasis, simply because he knew human nature. As well, the three-step process of reconciliation put to us by Jesus is the very same process practised by the Essene community in Qumran (150 BCE – 75 CE, and the site of discovery of the now famous “Dead Sea Scrolls”).
Jesus challenges us to take on the difficult work of reconciliation, to commit ourselves to finding the solution to our disagreements and divisions, not out of a sense of wanting to justify ourselves, but out of a desire to imitate the love and mercy of God. It’s a significant challenge, but one which leads to peace of mind and heart, and one which helps us to grow into being healthy human beings.