Jesus' Lesson on Conflict
It is inevitable that we will encounter conflict in our lives – with enemies, with friends, with strangers, and with family members. Conflict is part of life, part of living in a society. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Some of us are better at dealing with conflict than others. Sometimes, we might want to avoid conflict, so we tell people what they want to hear (or what we think they want to hear); sometimes, we simply keep our mouths shut; sometimes, we tell lies, or we say that something is good when it is actually bad. Conversely, we might simply stop associating with people with whom we disagree and relegate them to “the other side” and simply judge them as eternally wrong.
Our modern world is full of examples of people dealing with conflict badly or in unhealthy ways. However, this is not something new. Conflict has existed since Adam and Eve! And it was certainly part of the life of Jesus. In fact, Jesus even expected conflicts to continue even after He rose and returned to the Father – even in the Church, among people of faith. That is why we receive this teaching today.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives His followers a formula for dealing with conflict. It is loving and just. When someone does something that we think is wrong or with which we disagree, Christ’s first advice is to deal with it between yourselves: person to person. Like adults. If that proves ineffective, then He passes to a second way of caring for the problem: asking the advice of other, trusted friends, or witnesses, in order to resolve the problem. If that does not work, then He says to share it with the community of the Church so that they may prayerfully bring the light of the Holy Spirit to the matter. Finally, if none of this works to bring about reconciliation, Jesus says, treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector – literally, He says, “let him be to you as a pagan or publican.”
So, we have from Christ Himself a method to address wrongs when we disagree with others. Upon hearing and reflecting on this, we must ask ourselves the question: Is this what I do?
Or, perhaps, do we follow our own way of managing conflict? When someone wrongs us, or when we perceive that we have been wronged, do we immediately share the matter with whoever will listen? Do we publish scathing posts on social media about how this person is terrible and how everyone should shun him? Do we try to gain as many people to “our side” of an issue before even considering that we might be wrong, or even considering the possibility of reconciliation?
Too infrequently, I think, do we follow Jesus’ advice here. Especially in our day and age, there is a tendency to want to air our grievances with whoever will listen instead of an honest and charitable search for resolution and reconciliation. This is clearly Jesus’ intent in this teaching. He knows that conflict will arise – even among good people. But, if we are always assuming the worst about each other, we have already closed a door to healing and freedom from the wounds that sin can inflict. We become perpetual victims and dispel the idea that we are called to forgive one another – as a first option, not because we are worthy of that forgiveness.
Think about a conflict in your life. Maybe it happened recently, maybe long ago. Are you still carrying the bitterness of that wound? Even if your were right, do you still feel the anger, pain, and resentment? This might be because you did not follow Jesus’ advice. Christ’s way is a way of charity. He always desires reconciliation, not estrangement. That is why He gives us this beautiful lesson.
However, when He finishes by telling us. “Let them be as a pagan or publican” to you, we should not interpret this as permission from Jesus to hate or maintain rancor toward them. Remember how Jesus treated pagans and publicans! He loved them; he forgave them; He invited them into fellowship with Him. This might be the hardest part of this Gospel – the call to continue to share life with those with whom we disagree. However, any close reading of Jesus’ life will tell us that He never harbored ill-will toward others – even the very people who crucified Him.
So, here we are – living in a world of conflict. Experiencing, sometimes daily, the fact that we will disagree with people. Thanks be to God; Jesus anticipated that and has guided us in what we should do. Brooding over an injury will only entrap us in an ugly cycle; sharing it all over Facebook will only enshrine our hate and anger; the only path to real freedom is the path of Jesus. When we receive Him in the Eucharist, let’s remember that as He offered that supreme sacrifice, He forgave those who did it, and now comes to us to share His grace and charity so that we can do what He does. This is the formula for forgiveness, for reconciliation, and ultimately for liberation for us and for others.