September 10, 2017 14th Sunday in Pentecost
Exodus 12:1–14 Romans 13:8–14 Matthew 18:15–20
There are times when I read the Bible and I think, “What on earth was happening that someone was compelled to say that?” Usually this happens when you read the prophets because they’re religious and political commentaries about what was happening at that time, in a certain region of Israel, and we don’t know all the details of what happened. It’s like the nursery rhymes that our kids sing today. Ring-Around-the Rosies sounds like a cute song but it’s actually about the bubonic plague in the 1600’s. We still have the song, but we don’t have the original context anymore.
Anyway, we are going along in Matthew and all of a sudden we get this lecture from Jesus on how his disciples should handle problems between them.
He starts off by saying: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. The word that threw me, in my translation, was “church” because at this point Jesus hasn’t started a church, just a movement among the Jewish community. But “church” is a later translation of a word that is closer to meaning of “religious community” in Greek, which would fit the situation of Jesus and his disciples.
But why does Jesus feel the need to instruct his disciples about how to live together? Well, let’s imagine this. There was actually an incredibly mixed group of people around Jesus. We know about the core twelve disciples, but the Bible also mentions women. Peter’s wife is never mentioned but we know that she did exist because scripture mentions his mother-in-law. It’s quite possible that Peter’s wife was traveling with the group. And there were also people who traveled with Jesus for a while, then would go back home, and then continue with him later. So there were people who came together on this journey from different towns with different customs. I am sure that you also had a few followers who were just along for the ride and figured that they could get a free meal if they traveled with the group.
You know, when you do cross-culture studies you realize that people are more likely to accept big differences between cultures that are far away from each other: Like Japanese don’t wear shoes in the house and American’s do; rather than little differences from cultures that are closer to each other, like the English cutting with the left hand and thinking it’s bad manners when American’s cut with our right. So I have no doubt that all these little clashes of culture were happening, and people were talking, and lines were being drawn, not just about culture differences but also about who was going to laundry, and who wasn’t carrying their fair share of luggage, and who always grabbed the best spot to set up their bedroll – and I’m sure that Jesus could sit back and see the mess that was taking place when no one talked to anyone else to clarify anything and just complained and ending up killing the spiritual vibe.
Nothing kills a group vibe faster than, “Well, she or he should know what their doing and how much it annoys me!” Really? I mean, really?! Let’s take a poll. Everyone who’s clairvoyant raise your hands. And you can’t count parent’s clairvoyance with your children, that’s different – that’s a combination of instinct and experience. I’m talking about: I know what my neighbor is thinking and what their motivations are for doing something at any given time. Show of hands please.
No one? Didn’t think so. But we go there all the time.
I can just imagine Jesus watching the squabbling from the sidelines and thinking, “Yeah, Moses, you were right. This is a stiffed-necked people.” (They were probably comparing notes during the transfiguration on the mountain about this.)
So Jesus starts by telling people to take a friend and go talk to the person who is committing an inflection of negativity. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say confront or argue, he says, “. . . point it out.” That’s gentler language. Then if you can’t reach an agreement or a resolution to the problem he suggests adding another two people to try to figure it out, then finally as a last resort to involve the whole community. Then if the person is going to be incredibly stubborn about their stance, to then ask the person to leave. We might think that’s a little harsh, but this was not the age where individuality was valued. People couldn’t survive on their own – they needed communities to help them live on a day-to-day basis and if the community was in strife or dissention then everyone would suffer.
The key to working out community problems is to live in the second commandment: To love your neighbor as yourself; to treat others in the way that you would like to be treated. As Paul says, Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. The central issue is: How do you love someone when they are causing problems or being a pain in the neck? Because the hardest time to love someone is when you’re angry or frustrated with a person, that’s the moment when you don’t feel like loving them at all.
First of all take a couple of deep breaths. I know that this sounds silly but negative emotions, especially anger and frustration, cause the body to tense and make you feel even more angry and frustrated, which makes it harder to get out of the emotional part of your brain and into the logic reasoning part of your brain. Concentrating on breathing when your angry or annoyed is a powerful tool – it really helps to you to think clearly.
Second, tell yourself, “It’s not about me.” Yes, I know, sometimes it is about you! But if you really step back and think about it probably 99.99% of what happens to us in life isn’t about us. Our problem is we make it about us, when it’s not about us. Part of this involves letting go of your ego, getting off the I-square, and putting yourself on the other person’s square. That is the first step to loving someone, when you are willing to empathize with them and figure out what their going through.
Once I was waiting for a train in NYC. Someone bumped me accidentally and I ended up slipping and knocking into another woman. She immediately turned to me and started to berate me for pushing her. Instead of countering with my berating I said, “Sorry. Are you all right?” That stopped her cold. Her mouth hung open, and I said, “Someone knocked into me and I went into you. I hope I didn’t hit you too badly.” She countered, “No, no, I’m okay.” “That’s good,” I said, “I would have hated it if you had been hurt.” She said, “No, I’m good.” My concern for her was so unexpected that it defused the situation entirely.
Once you put yourself into the mode of caring for the other person you make yourself ready to listen to what the other person is going through. And even if it seems that what they are going through is petty and ridiculous, remember that it’s their petty and ridiculous situation, not yours. One of the hardest things for us to do is to withhold judgment. Yes, sticking chopsticks straight up in rice might not be a big thing to you, but to someone from the orient it means that the rice shouldn’t be eaten because it is now a funeral offering for the dead. Take the mote – your lens that you see the world through – out of your eye, and try to see the situation as the other person does.
The next step is to lovingly ask if you’ve understood the situation. Saying, “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” and then repeating back their story validates how they feel and shows them that you understand the situation. If you don’t get something right they have the chance to correct you – accept the correction. The ego wants to say, “I understood it,” but we really only comprehend 80% of what’s been told to us.
Of course the ego says, “Well, what about my way?” This is where patience comes into play. Often if you let a person get out their frustrations they will burn out most of their frustrations. If you get to the point that the person agrees that you understand them then you can ask them if you can tell your side of the story, or give your perception about what’s going on. And I do mean ask permission. Our words often track our minds as much as our minds track our words. When a person says, “Yes, you can tell me your side,” their mind goes into listening mode.
Jesus tried to bring peace into this world through love. Love is an action word. The way to bring peace is if we, as individuals, take a stand on conflict resolution through loving listening, loving reassurance, and loving solutions that are fair to everyone. This is not an easy thing to do because often our pride, well developed and guarded by our ego’s, gets in our way.
But if we stand on Christ’s love and see others without our ego lens then we can see where they are and start to lead them in love. And when two people are guided by the love of Christ, then Christ will be with us.