Living in the Light or Going Down in Flames
Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2020
There’s an old fable about a lion and a tiger. Both thirsty, the animals arrived at the water hole at the same time. They immediately began to argue about which should satisfy its thirst first. The argument became heated. Each one decided it would rather die than give up the privilege of being first to quench its thirst.
Stubbornly they confronted each other, and their emotions turned to rage. However, their vicious attacks on each other were suddenly interrupted. They both looked up toward the sky, and circling overhead was a flock of vultures waiting for the loser to fall. Quietly, the two beasts turned away from each other and withdrew back into the forest. The thought of being devoured was all they needed to end their quarrel.
In today’s gospel reading we find the description of a process of conflict resolution from Jesus himself. It presupposes that for any relationship there has to be some level of trust, respect and harmony, otherwise the relationship will not last. It further presupposes that there is value in the relationship—otherwise, why bother trying to resolve it?
During my final year in the seminary, I was asked to work as an advisor for the English-speaking Marriage Encounter in Europe. On one weekend, there was a couple who had been married for a number of years, but they hit a rough spot, and the relationship was starting to unravel. I asked both if they thought the relationship was worth saving. Both answered yes. I suggested that, at some point during the weekend, the couple find a quiet spot where they could look into their hearts and ask themselves, first of all, why they wanted the relationship to be successful; what was it about the other that they still loved. Then, I suggested that they write about what they were feeling, why they felt hurt, why they were arguing, and what they still loved about the other person despite the arguing—but to write in as loving a manner as they could. Then, they could come back together and with loving eyes and hearts, without any idea of condemnation or getting even, read what the other person wrote. Then, I asked them to speak to each other from their hearts. Fortunately, their love was greater than their disagreements, and they were reconciled.
I look at what is happening in our country in a similar way. If we are honest, I think we have to admit that we are about as divided as we’ve ever been. And it seems that each day more and more fuel is being added to the fire. In today’s paper, one demonstrator states that he believes there is a civil war coming to America. It hasn’t always been this way. My mind goes back to 9/11, that day when we were attacked by a foreign adversary. I will never forget the members of Congress, standing on the steps of the Capitol, singing as with one voice, “God Bless America”.
But today, our politics feels similar to that of the lion and tiger at the watering hole, neither wanting to back down, neither searching for any kind of compromise.
Whenever I preach, I like to apply what I’m saying to myself first. As I take an honest look at my own strong feelings about the political situation, I have to admit that, many times, I have been like the lion and the tiger at the watering hole. I can very easily butt heads by asking a question like, “How can these people be so stupid?” And as I read various columns and letters to the editor in our local newspapers, I see that there are plenty of people doing the same. But asking about the stupidity of people brings more heat than light. Certainly, we can discuss what is happening and what we believe to be right with passion and conviction. But if we do so out of hatred and anger, forgetting that we are, and have long been, neighbors, fellow-citizens, and friends—all sharing the blessings and shouldering the pains and mistakes that are made—we are in danger of destroying our mutual bonds and common humanity. If I believe I am right, and if I share my convictions with passion, it should be, however, because I love you, not because I think you’re stupid or I want to destroy you.
The process Jesus describes in the gospel is based on love, respect and truth. It is a non-violent process that seeks what is good and right. And it leaves open the possibility of a failure to come to an agreement, and a parting of the ways. But it seeks the good of the other, not the destruction. And so, as the debate continues, I believe we can be more productive if we resolve to bring the light of the gospel rather than the heat of our anger or hatred. We desperately need healing. In Jesus’ teaching we find the wisdom to speak the truth in love. This is the contribution we can make to the political debate precisely as Christians.
Finally, let us not forget the ancient story about the lion and the tiger. If we continue to rip each other apart, heedless of the damage being done, there are plenty of vultures, ready to step in, preparing to build a society that would be very different, with values very unlike those we now cherish. Let us pray that we may prefer to live in the light of truth, justice and peace, rather than going down in the flames of anger and hatred.