Make the First Move
Twenty-third Sunday of the Year. Br Joseph Bailham contrasts the way of Christ with our tendency to push people away.
Anyone familiar with social media can see how a platform that could foster genuine sharing of ideas and a charitable pursuit of truth, more often than not descends into a platform for shaming and humiliating others. We see it in so-called political “discussions” but, tragically, in Church-related matters too. Faced with someone who expresses an alternative ecclesiology or opinion on faith and morals, the response can frequently be one of ridicule and exclusion. The first response can too often be that of pushing away.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord is quite clear that our first response, when someone does something to wrong us, is not to push them away, but instead, in a sense, to draw them closer, to reason with them, to engage with them, to have a conversation. If that doesn’t work, then one proceeds to the next step of engagement by bringing others into the conversation. Throughout, one’s default position is one of charitable engagement. We see this in Our Lord telling us to have that conversation initially alone. The aim is not to humiliate and shame the person before others, but rather to get beyond the face of the offending remarks and actions, and to enquire more deeply into the motives and reasons behind the person’s actions, to seek the truth of the matter. It involves taking the extra mile and not giving in to premature judgement.
I am reminded of a rabbinic story which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks retells of an 18/19th century Hassidic rabbi. Rabbi Yitzhak saw a fellow Jew smoking on the sabbath, something forbidden. The rabbi asked the Jew whether he had forgotten what day it was. The response was, “No,” he knew what day it was. The rabbi then asked whether he had forgotten that smoking was forbidden on the sabbath. The response was again, “No,” he knew it was forbidden. The rabbi then asked that surely his mind was elsewhere when he lit the cigarette, but he received the reply that he knew exactly what he was doing. Rabbi Yitzhak, we are told, ‘turned his eyes upwards to heaven and said, “Sovereign of the universe, who is like Your people Israel? I give this man every chance, and still he cannot tell a lie!”’ Rabbi Yitzhak, concerned by the waywardness of one of his own, a fellow Jew, could find something good in his neighbour, some common ground to keep him close, even though his behaviour presumably offended and upset him.
The directives of Christ run counter to trends in society where the offended is not the one who should make the first move, but rather the offender. I am entitled to an apology, I was wronged by, the onus is on them to make the first move, not me. But this is not Christ’s way. We imitate Him who is God made visible, the One who has been and continues to be wronged by our trespasses. And yet, though it was humanity which turned its back on God, He nonetheless assumed the state of His offending creature, suffered and died at its hands; even more, He redeemed and elevated that creature to a status it neither deserved nor could reach without Divine action. The offended binds Himself to the offender in an extraordinary way.
Lest we’re quick to interpret Christ’s words today in an exclusionary sense, where He says if a person fails to listen even to the community, they should be treated like a pagan or a tax collector, remember Christ was precisely the one ready to engage with such persons. The labels are not to be used to keep people at bay, but rather serve as an incentive for us to seek them out all the more in love.