Sometimes, you think you’ve got the path forward all figured out – only to discover that you don’t wind up where you expected to be.
It happened to me at Mass today, as I was listening to the words of the Gospel (Matthew 18: 15-20). The topic of Jesus’ instruction was enough to make me uncomfortable, even on a surface level. He’s teaching us how to deal with conflict – and in general, that’s an activity I’d just as soon avoid, thank-you-very-much.
The methodology Jesus proposes seems straightforward enough:
“If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that ‘every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”
So far, so good. It never hurts, I figure, to bring one or two others into such difficult situations – even if only to serve as a reality check: Do I have my facts straight? Am I seeing the situation from the proper perspective? Or have I been blinded by my own assumptions and sinfulness?
Things get a little stickier, though, as Jesus explains the method for escalating the resolution process:
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”
As a practical matter, I’m not exactly sure what that even means today: How precisely are we supposed to “tell the church” when there’s a grievance that needs to be resolved…or a sin that needs to be addressed? Give the bishop a call? Send an email to the pastor?
So I was more than ready to skip ahead to Step 4 in the process – which, on my first hearing, sounded pretty much like we’re given permission to shun…to cut off the offending person:
“If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Now, that’s a teaching I can live with, I thought to myself. Just usher the sinner(s) out of my life. Stop thinking about him or her at all. No need to waste my time or energy on someone who is so obviously misguided.
That’s when it hit me: I’d wound up right back where I started – nurturing a desire to avoid conflict in the first place. Turning away from those who sin against me.
And in the pregnant pause that followed, I realized something else, too:
Jesus tended to treat Gentiles and tax collectors in just the opposite manner.
Jesus did not shun them; he embraced them.
Jesus showered them with love far beyond their merits or expectations.
It’s not at all the call I expected to hear today. Jesus, inviting me to follow someplace new – a place where only grace will suffice to move me beyond the hard-wired imperfections and limitations of my spirit.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.