‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26
Sometimes I hate the human part of being a member of a group of people: how we can often misunderstand one another and be hurt or angered by others’ behavior. When this happens to me, when I hear that I have been misunderstood and have unintentionally offended somebody, I groan inwardly. It means that I will have to track this person down, find out what is wrong and resolve the difficulty. This is very hard work. Often they lash out at me, and then I have to put my own hurt feelings on the back burner while I try to attend to theirs. Listening well – i.e. without trying to frame a rebuttal in my head while they are talking – getting a clear and full understanding of the difficulty, learning what things I said or did that were hurtful – all this is downright exhausting.
And, of course, it’s no less draining to be the person who was hurt by somebody else. I still have to track the offender down, still have to have a conversation with them. Not only is this hard work, but it can make me feel petty or silly as well. It is uncomfortable to be so vulnerable.
It would be so much easier in either case simply to draw away into a cocoon, wrapping my feelings of being unappreciated and misunderstood around me like cotton batting. And I have to admit that I have often done this over the years. And then, at other times, I have been guilty of just closing my eyes and wishing – that the problem would blow over, or that new information would bring the offended party, whether it’s me or the other person, new insight – without me having to do a thing. Ah, it’s such grace when that actually happens and the slog of difficult conversation is avoided!
But I have learned through painful experience that there is only so long I can let things ride. Bad feelings between people tend to fester and grow. Once we have attributed certain motives to another person, everything they do will seem to fit our idea of why they are behaving as they do. Have they ignored us in the grocery store? They must hate us. Did they not invite us to dinner with all our other friends? They must not think we are very important. Best to interrupt these machinations before a whole mountain of incidents accumulates. But it is such arduous work!
It is really this passage from Matthew and a few others like it that keep me at it. Jesus set up a new standard for us here. Rather than asking us to adhere to a legalistic understanding of how to behave righteously, he invites us into real community. Our brothers and sisters matter; and we need to live into that reality, no matter what it takes and how difficult it can sometimes be. That means ironing out the misunderstandings, apologizing for the hurts. It means valuing one another enough not to carry grudges or brokenness in our feelings for each other. It’s more important to attend to these tasks than anything – certainly more important to God than offerings. And God will give us a hand in the speaking and the listening if we bring the matter to God in prayer.
Compassionate God, give us the strength and courage to mend our broken relationships before they lead us to the prison of fear and isolation. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.