The Gospel reading today deals with ways to settle disagreements and conflicts. How do you feel about disagreements? Do you avoid them? Do you hate them? Do you enjoy them? Do you always win them or lose them?
Sometimes people have the impression that since we claim to be Christians, we will live in eternal harmony-even here on the earth. People have expectations that all will be harmony and things will just be perfect, peaceful, and harmonious. Do you have those expectations?
While most of us prefer agreement, probably few of us have these kinds of expectations. All of us have been schooled in the real world and we know and expect that we will have disagreements. In fact, many of the arguments that occur between generations are frequently signs of progress and change. What was and what is to be will be. It will be different and it will represent change. Even if these changes are acknowledged, it does not reduce the reality of conflict and disagreement, and the potential for bruised feelings.In addition, there are the inevitable conflicts that occur when we pursue our own interests and needs. While we can primarily see things from our individual vantage point, others may have entirely different, conflicting points of view. Also their needs may be entirely different from our own and this factor can put us at conflict. These different needs can, in fact, be the basis of very intense misunderstanding and discord.
The reality is that we do not experience the world as a place where people come together to agree and get along. Our general experience is the opposite. We compete in the sports arena, the spelling bee, the dance contest, the cook-off, and any other activity in which we participate. It just seems that from our earliest childhood when we were encouraged to take our first steps until we are cheered through the finish line in any race of life, competition is our guide and mentor.
The problem is that we seldom stop to consider and realize that for each winner there may be a loser. We also may tie our sense of self worth up with winning and always feel the losers are second rate people. Herein lies the basis of much of our disagreement and difficulty.
We are honed for competition and conflict from our early days. This preparation is often the basis of many of the confrontations that we experience.
All of us probably enjoy and need to have a sense of growth and achievement. While the arena where we develop that sense is with others, we can choose to compete with ourselves and not be dominated by our competition with others. This alternative can allow us to be in a competition without experiencing negative feelings toward others. The task is to set realistic personal goals and be patient as we work toward our achievement of them.
One of the insights from today's Gospel is that this same problem existed when Jesus was sharing his life and parables of insight. Human nature has not changed very much over the course of human history. It was the same before the great teacher was among us and it has remained the same since his time on earth. Jesus knew that we were going to disagree. He did not make any direct judgements but simply acknowledged the reality that it was going to happen. Jesus could have condemned disagreement and taken sides.
Regarding the "right side" of the issue. With his typical wisdom, Jesus deals with the reality and the problem by sharing a parable about how to reconcile the difference of opinion and conflict that is a part of being human.
The conflict reference in the Gospel today refers to problems in the Christian community of that time. The advice is so broad it can refer to any type of disagreement that occurs between two brothers or members of the Christian community.
The first advice is to discuss the issue again with your brother. We have all experienced times when our impression of a conversation or conflict is at fault. This allows the opportunity for the two to reconcile their differences simply by clarification in a one-on-one conversation. It is also true that we frequently find that a fresh attempt to address a disagreement will result in a new insight or understanding. You may find that you can easily resolve the area of conflict.
The second step to resolve the conflict is to ask two other people to join you. This is one of the earliest examples of arbitration. The advice is to get the help of two others to assist you in resolving the conflict. It seems that all of us have a tendency to mellow when we state our differences in front of others. This reality, along with the stereo vision provided by having others hear and discuss the points in the dispute, can many times resolve it. While the scenario of this Gospel lesson is within the Christian community, this advice can be helpful in any situation.
The next step in the conflict resolution is to refer the conflict to the entire congregation. It seems that the threat of this action would be a powerful stimulus to resolve any conflict. It would likely be a very serious situation for the disagreeing parties to submit their dispute to their religious peers. Most of us would be very prone to work something out before accepting this public airing of the situation.
The Gospel states that if the disagreeing party is not reconciled by the community arbitration, then they should be cast out of the community. It would appear that this refers to very serious situations indeed, where the entire community was at risk due to the conflict.
It could be a stand that could endanger them or put them at risk. We do see parallels to expulsion in our modern world. Individuals who do not agree with the goals and tenets of an organization may be excluded or asked to leave. It is just that we do not probably expect this type of behavior to happen within the Christian community. Whether it is a congregation at risk because of caustic individuals or any other organization that is threatened by uncooperative people, there are times when drastic action is the only realistic solution. A final bit of advice concludes this Gospel. It encourages us to be responsible and to remember Christ as we go through our lives together. When the inevitable conflict arises, we are confident that the spirit is with us. We can be assured that the love and care of Christ is with us as we experience and enjoy our lives. When conflict arises, we know that Jesus accepts it as part of us and he is with us as we work toward a solution that is fair to all and within full recognition of our mutual worth.