September 6: Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 • Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20
Today's gospel reading is a quick introduction to doing things the way Jesus did them. Not for the faint-of-heart, these words should come with some sort of warning: Not the easy way! Jesus begins with a common situation: a problem between two people. The two already know each other and they are part of the same group. In the gospel, the group was a small faith community. In my mind, whether it's family or church or work setting or any other community, the instructions apply equally well. In the passage, Jesus provides a four-step process for working things out.
Step one is for one of the two persons to go to the other one to talk about the problem at hand. However, the obvious first step is often ignored, as our instinct as human beings is to go to a third person to complain! The instinct to avoid a problem rather than engage it, followed by the effort to hand off the problem to a third party, is an all-too-common pattern. Or, one can attempt to stuff it inside, not mentioning it to anyone. Often, at least in my own experience, an odd combination of both is attempted! The 'problem,' whatever it is, has somehow stirred up some feelings. Engaging the problem begins with managing one's own anxiety rather than taking it personally. The good news here is that one has agency over one's feelings. One can reflect thoughtfully on one's emotions. Once a person has calmed herself down, it is possible to consider in what ways one has contributed to the problem that needs to be discussed with another. Then it's time to talk.
Sometimes talking with the person – step two – goes well. Moving towards the problem gently but clearly may bring up all kinds of nuances each person had failed to understand previously. It's a short hop from more understanding of a problem to new insights about it. However, going through this process of self-reflection, staying calm, and talking with another, takes time and energy. During a pandemic, it takes more than that – it takes intention. A person has to arrange each conversation, as there is no casual running into one another at the office, in the neighborhood, at the gym, at church, or any of many places we are all missing these days. The Covid-19 virus underscores the need to be intentional about relationship processes.
The most well-intended efforts, though, sometimes fail. When the problem continues, step three – involving others – is important not only for the two with a disagreement, but also for the larger community. The underlying anxiety and the problem itself are more than the two can handle alone. Bringing in one or two others who can help sort it out can bring a solution not only for the original twosome but also for the entire group. When cooperation finds new expression, the capacity of the group to manage its problems grows.
Finally, step four: when nothing seems to be working, treat the person like a tax collector. The advice of Jesus here is often understood to mean shunning the person. I see it differently. Jesus himself was criticized just a few chapters back in Matthew 11, for partying with tax collectors. His interest in people extended to them. He saw them as people. He moved closer to this universally reviled group, in spite of much criticism for doing so, seeking to understand rather than reproach them.
The ability to be with others without agreeing with them – without losing one's own identity – is key here. Maybe the most important thing about this passage is what it doesn't say. Briefly, it doesn't say to give in. When there is conflict, the energy of the emotional system can help a person to hold on to inner principles. It can provide strength to overcome helplessness and engage a problem. While the four steps may fail to bring agreement, they offer the chance to respect the dignity of every human being, including one's self, along the way.
Morning: Where in the four-step process do I struggle the most? What could I do differently?
Evening: What people or problems were difficult for me to engage today?
Psalm 149:4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.