Today’s gospel is rich with advice on getting along with each other. And even in a secular context, we need to get along just to survive. While at times we may hear the call of some inner lone wolf, we are primarily communal creatures. We need to stick together. We have little choice. Isolation means extinction.
Despite what you might have learned from watching “Planet of the Apes” and its never ending sequels, we are a lot more than a sub-species of primates temporarily at the top of the food chain. We are not an anomaly of natural selection, elevated merely by dint of our cerebral cortex and manual dexterity. We are God’s beloved, made in his image, here to love him and serve him by loving and serving each other. To that end, we must first learn to get along. And to get along, we must learn to forgive.
Want to take a crash course in forgiveness? Get married. Want to take a graduate degree in forgiveness? Have kids. The closer we live together, the more we need to forgive. If we don’t, then we can’t live together. In successful relationships, romance is not the primary manifestation of love. Forgiveness is. And forgiveness is not a natural reflex. It must be learned and practiced over and over. Like riding a bike or skiing, there are basics we must master or we are in for a fall.
But forgiveness is more than a mechanical act. It is a state of mind. It is an infusion and transmission of God’s mercy… readily and constantly available, not dragged out grudgingly at the end of a conflict. It must be inherent in all our interactions, particularly when conflict first presents itself and we are sorting out our emotions and reactions.
Following a whirlwind of miracles and revelations, this is a gospel of instruction rather than inspiration. Jesus is teaching Christian Conflict Resolution 101. Knowing our imperfections, he knows how sorely we need the ability to avoid and, when necessary, resolve life’s many conflicts. While originally delivered two-thousand year ago to simple country folks, this gospel rings particularly true in our litigious, politically correct and hyper-sensitive times.
Jesus is clear that this is not an invitation to redress every real or imagined slight. It is not a hunting license for busybodies. The conditions of action are very precise: If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately. Pope John XXIII had some very good advice for implementing this gospel. He counseled: “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” We are to act sparingly and lovingly in matters that are serious enough to be classified as “sins” and only when we are directly involved. We should not act out of pride or pique, but only from compassionate Christian love. No dramatics. No gotchas. Directly and succinctly Jesus lays out practical best practices for resolving conflict and dealing with its aftermath. Not surprisingly, the secret ingredient is love.
We have been cautioned earlier in Matthew not to fixate on the speck in our brother’s eye and ignore the log in our own. In private, thoughtful and prayerful consideration, we should seek God’s will to guide us, to help us sort out the facts, to help us purify our motives, to point us toward solutions. Upon due discernment, if we are convinced that it is God’s will that corrective action is needed, Jesus does more than give us helpful hints, he tells us precisely what to do.
When and if the time comes for any of us to need to resolve a conflict that cannot be overlooked, I pray we have the faith, the courage and the common sense to act in the humble, loving spirit of Christ. When and if we are approached by a brother or sister seeking redress, I pray we welcome the input and reward the effort in that same loving spirit. Bones are strongest where they are broken then knit and healed properly, and so are relationships. We are reminded in this gospel that a Christian life is not a solo-act and it is certainly not without pratfalls for all of us. But we have Christ’s example. We have his instruction and his encouragement. And more than that, we have his assurance that he is with us in every conflict. His love will see us through: For where two or three come together in my name, I am with you.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.