The Way of God’s Family

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Being a middle child, I absolutely detest all manner of conflict and confrontation. If I sense trouble brewing up ahead, my quick instinct is to panic discreetly and escape in the least conspicuous way possible. I would truly love it if everyone in the world lived in peace and harmony, and respectfully stayed out of each other’s business. If that isn’t possible, I would love a minimally disruptive appearance of stability and tranquility in my immediate vicinity. I’m not saying middle children have a monopoly on this intense aversion to conflict and confrontation. It’s just that first born and only children are so much more likely to exude confidence and self-assurance than middle children. It’s just my theory, but they seem to possess great courage and presence of mind to keep cool under pressure, and deal with the problem at hand, and come away unscathed. And on the other end, youngest children seem to have a bigger selection of defensive responses when faced with conflict and confrontation. If they’re not making light of the approaching explosive situation, by mocking what to them may just seem irrational, or by teasing and taunting in an effort to charm their opponent into arriving at that same conclusion, they will just dismiss the whole thing, calling it pathetic and inconsequential.

Conflict and confrontation are par for the course when stubborn and inflexible people get together. It’s just the way we get things done, or rather, the way we don’t get things done. But when family is involved, something very different is added to the mix. Family ties are supposedly sacred, and command greater loyalty and patience, until they don’t. We are all too familiar with children rebelling against their parents, parents disowning their children, spouses spitting bile and venom at each other, siblings and cousins, in-laws and outlaws hurling insults and death threats that would make their ancestors turn over in their graves. And that’s just the Tuesday midday line-up on Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. Who knows? Maybe they were getting compensated big bucks just to spike the ratings. I’m sure neither your families nor mine have come close to anything like that. Instead when we cross paths with obstinate relatives, we just seethe quietly and conjure ways to ignore each other while we marinate in our own juices. Then we get together with them for Thanksgiving and make nice while we convince ourselves this is the last time this is ever going to happen, and oh, by the way, our real family is gathered around the table somewhere else missing us, and we are really adopted because we can’t possibly share DNA with these monsters. Or is that just me?

If you come from a large family, there never seems to be a shortage of drama. I don’t know what it’s like with smaller families. I’m sure they have their own version of Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. But since they may not have to do battle on several fronts simultaneously, they can train their evil death ray energies with greater precision for maximum effectiveness. Or maybe they just get along better. Usually, smaller families are populated by only children, or two and three, and it’s not as easy for them to escape family gatherings.

So when God’s people gathers in houses of worship each weekend, there’s a large family dynamic at work. We call ourselves a family, and sometimes we act just like one, with the complaining, the backbiting, the veiled threats, the silent treatment. Jesus invites us to resolve our differences by first upholding that bond of unity. He reminds us that our communion one with another is necessary and vital to our claim of discipleship and his Father’s love. As I’ve told many couples on their wedding day, so I tell you. If we value being together more than being right, we will weather any storm. If our bond of unity is a higher priority than the satisfaction we get from twisting our neighbor’s arm into submission until they cry “uncle,” life would be more manageable. We won’t resolve every conflict overnight, but at least we sincerely desire to work things out.

Jesus lays down four steps for conflict resolution among his disciples. The first step is for the offended party to put on their big boy or big girl pants, articulate a coherent grievance, and say something. People who offend are seldom the ones who initiate reconciliation. In their heads, they settled the squabble through their brilliant eloquence and commanding presence. The offended party must believe that it is even possible to come to the table, which means the other side has to show a willingness to welcome them and hear them out. The intended outcome in all this is supposed to be reconciliation, not further alienation. And if neither one desires that outcome, then their bond of unity is damaged beyond repair. Might as well wait 500 years, and leave it to their descendants to pick up the pieces someday. But we shouldn’t give up so easily.

Step two. The offended party, still hopeful for a reconciliation, takes along two or three others to attempt a better outcome. Again, there has to be realistic hope that their bond of unity is a higher priority than that one of them is right and the other is wrong. And if that doesn’t work, and reconciliation is still the intended outcome, they bring in the whole community to weigh in, which can backfire. Usually by this time, the big guns are drawn, and no one intends to take prisoners. But bringing in the whole community should reinforce a desire for reconciliation, because we still want to call on God as our Father, and be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, and be guided by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we aren’t really who we say we are.

And if all else fails, Jesus tells us we should treat each other as he treated tax collectors and public sinners, that is, with great compassion and patience. Have we been reading this instruction wrong this whole time? Tax collectors and public sinners are not usually upstanding citizens. They would be the vile and venomous relatives who scream bloody murder at us on national TV. But it is not surprising that the passage that follows invites us to agree together about what we are to pray, because Jesus is in our midst, and the Father hears us when we come together in Jesus’ name. If we still value our bond of unity, if we still genuinely care about the welfare of those we once called family, we cannot give up on reconciliation entirely. There has got to be a way through any crisis. Maybe Dr. Phil is still willing to work with us.

Now the Prophet Ezekiel was charged by God to speak truth to sinners, even to being held responsible for the punishment they deserved if he failed to speak. But Jesus has since given us the law of love, which is a higher law even than truth. Yes, we must speak truth, but always with care for the welfare of our neighbor. Unfortunately, Christians have notoriously neglected to put the law of love above all other laws.

500 years ago, Martin Luther sparked a firestorm in the church that resulted in mutual condemnations and excommunications between self-described disciples of Jesus Christ. We either come back to the table or we stop calling ourselves Christians. Either we stick together or end up blaming one of us for being wrong.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

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