This passage addresses interpersonal conflict… something we all deal with. I leave aside major and complex issues like “Is there such a thing as a just war?” Today I touch on individual and personal conflict.
The subject of family conflict appears in many classic works of art, including plays like Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, or Shakespeare’s King Lear. In my own life, after a school boys’ fistfight, I remember our teacher trying to correct us all and saying: “Can you imagine if I had a difference of opinion with another teacher, and we went outside to fight it out?” I found the mental image so dramatic that I remember it still.
We all know of work situations or domestic situations in which people are arguing and then going their separate ways. We may see the causes; and may recognize that they are insufficient reasons (or else sufficient reasons) to cause a personal division. Our advice may be unwelcome, and so we do not know what to do about the situation. Is it possible to discover God’s compassion within anguished relationships?
How can one find or build peace within our relationships, or relationships close to us, when there is a difference of opinion; or differences due to culture; due to gender; or due to age?
Firstly, disagreement is inevitable. Furthermore, it can be creative, and can lead to growth. So disagreement is no shame. As the Book of Ecclesiastes notes, “There is a time for scattering stones, and a time for gathering stones.” If the disagreement is very deep and long lasting, then we should recognize that not every marriage, relationship, or working setting is ‘made in heaven.’ It may be time to part, at least for a while.
Also, some disagreements relate to biological changes or disease, causing a change of personality that is extremely difficult for everyone concerned.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 200 – September 14, 258 CE/AD) said that the unity of the Christian community is preserved by the bishops who were bound together by bonds of concord… Yet the bishops during those times had major debates, which divided the Christians of the then-known world deeply. The questions included whether believers could be forgiven after turning against Christ; and later, whether Jesus Christ was God, which is the faith of a Christian. History shows both that these were necessary debates; and also that unity was equally necessary. Both diversity and unity are important for any community.
Other serious and necessary debates in the church have been over slavery, liturgical revision, and the ordination and consecration of women and homosexuals.
Our gospel reading today speaks about resolving disagreements. This gospel reading should be connected with Lev 19:17f and with Mt 5:23-24, 43.
Do not let resentment get the upper hand
Lev 19:17f: “I am the Lord. You shall not nurse hatred against your brother or sister. You shall reprove your fellow-countryman frankly [but] not seek revenge, nor cherish anger towards your kinsfolk; you shall love your neighbor as a person like yourself. I am the Lord.”
However difficult our relationship with another person, we can still remember that they are a child and a creation of God, deeply loved by God.
We can improve a relationship by keeping the conflict in perspective: There are unrealistic expectations and so disappointments in any relationship; but we must also value fully and explicitly what has been successful in the relationship. In this way we can find the common ground, and agree on credible and realistic goals.
Forgiveness is liberating
Mt 5:23-24, speaks of preparing oneself before the Day of Atonement, through reconciling with any adversary. This frees us to live more fully. In Matthew 6:14-15 “for if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.” Unresolved conflict can escalate, or be a lingering inner burden. Matthew’s view (in chapter 5 verse 43) is that all people are neighbors to the Christian disciple. If we bind others, we bind ourselves. If we release others, we release ourselves, no longer to endlessly and uselessly repeat the burdensome recriminations against them in our mind every day.
We must express our pain directly and then forgive and release our pain completely
It can be very bruising and then complicated when we ‘triangle,’ that is, when we complain to a third party about a second party. In our gospel reading (Mt 18:15-17), reconciliation is accomplished first by registering objections on a one-to-one basis; then in the presence of one or two others; and finally in the presence of the local congregation or better (in modern times), in the presence of a pastor, counselor, or psychologist. We can resolve disagreements if we make a regular time set to meet and talk; and when we note down agreements and commitments. If none of these work, significantly, the gospel tells us to close the matter in our own hearts.
The simple process of expressing pain and releasing it applies to recent or distant events
Our most serious adult difficulties are often to be resolved by reliving the unexpressed feelings from our early family conflicts, and then releasing them. Clinebell (Basic Types of Pastoral Counselling 1966:271) urges us to talk out early hurts with a trusted partner, because “The ghosts of the past [then lose] their power [in] the light of present reality. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Alice knew it was the Rabbit coming to look for her, and she trembled till she shook the house, quite forgetting that she was now about a thousand times as large as the Rabbit and had no reason to be afraid of it.”
When we talk about our hidden ‘rabbits’; relive and then release the feelings, in the presence of a caring and accepting friend—the frightening rabbits soon become a lot smaller. Clinebell (:272) describes a woman, having talked through her childhood relationship with her mother, reporting that her negative feelings flowed away. ‘For the first time in my life I can feel real compassion for her because I am free enough from her not to feel crippled by her crippledness.”
Challenge and summary
Thomas Green (When the Well Runs Dry :144) describes the prayerful and forgiving life as floating in water: “Learning to float is [learning] to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do… Trust God (and the divine imperative to express pain, and then forgive completely). Trust that God’s arms under your floating body are as steady and sure as dry land.”
Think of your own conflict—ancient or recent. Be frank about it with that person, with a partner, or with a bible study group, pastor, counselor, or psychologist. Then release it completely, to float in God’s liberation and freedom. If vengeance is involved, let God see to that. Let us see to praise and to freedom and to love.
This is powerful medicine. Let us try it and see what happens.