I remember as a fourth-grader a class about martyrs and martyrdom. Mother Vivian told us how the days of the great martyrs were behind us and explained what little chance there was for us to be martyred, but that, nonetheless, we should all be prepared to give our lives, if necessary, for the faith. There was, after all, the threat of communism and people were being persecuted in Eastern Europe.
The words of Jesus in the Gospel often present to us the challenge of life-changing and life-threatening decisions. We heard, for instance, last week’s Gospel of the need for everyone to be willing to take up their own cross and follow him as his disciple. We would all wish to do that and we do it in so many ways, aware, as well, that we need to do it better and more often in each of our lives.
But then we get a Gospel like today’s—a simple method for dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise between people, even people of faith. It is not difficult, but I propose that, at times, each of us would rather prefer gory martyrdom over the simple plan Jesus gives us for how to deal with conflict. I suggest that out of all the things Jesus commanded us to do, that this is the one thing least embraced and practiced by us. If anything is true, we all tend to read this passage backwards. He proposes that if we have a problem with someone that we first go to that person and talk it through, resolving it in the privacy that such a meeting guarantees. Instead, I think it is our all-too-common practice to go first to every other person imaginable to talk about the problem that he or she has, as if doing that will solve the situation. When we have been hurt, we too often treat a sister or brother as an outsider, as a veritable leper, preferring to share the story of our hurt with everyone else but the right person. I admit that I am not immune to this tendency either.
It is pride that can lead us to refuse the guidance and help of others. We can proudly believe ourselves to be self-sufficient and reject the advice and criticism of others as interference. Pride can also lead us to deal arrogantly with the shortcomings and follies of others, causing resentment and bitterness.
In our second reading, Saint Paul writes that it is through giving and receiving love that we fulfill God’s commandments. Living in love, Paul says, leads us into debt, the debt of mutual love, the only thing, in the end, that we should owe to anyone. The prospect of being in debt can be a frightening one, and love can sometimes seem frightening, too. In accepting the kindness of others or in offering them help, we make ourselves vulnerable. Love forces us to admit that we are not self-sufficient, that we are not superior to others but must be interdependent. Saint Paul urges us to overcome our fear of interdependence and vulnerability, declaring that love does no evil to the neighbor. Mutual love is a unique kind of debt, one that should not bring anxiety or shame, but security and joy.
Failure to deal honestly with those with whom we are in conflict, taking the problems away from the personal debt of love we should owe to the other, results in gossip and ultimately in slander. Slander is stealing a person’s reputation and as with all theft, justice demands that restitution must be made if the sin is to be forgiven. Those sins are far more insidious and more difficult in the end to undo. It is far easier to do what Jesus asks and start at the beginning of this process—have it out between the two of you. His wisdom knows that this is where the problem will most often be resolved.
There is one final point he makes, couched in the verses about prayer that conclude this Gospel. Once again he links prayer to the relationships we have with one another. He says we must agree with each other on earth when we ask God to fill our needs. We must, in other words, be in right relationship with each other before we dare ask help from God. The vertical relationship with God depends on the horizontal relationships we have from moment-to-moment with each other. But how could it be otherwise? Hasn’t he said in so many other places that the whole of the law is reduced simply to love of God and love of neighbor as one’s self? Saint Paul said it today: love is the fulfillment of the law. We can not have a real and mature relationship to the eternal Creator of all without working steadfastly on the ones we have with each other. Our life of faith depends on it. Better to follow Jesus’ simple solution.