I’m blessed to live in a very friendly city. Not only will people routinely call you “love” and “pet”, but in shops they go out of their way to be welcoming and helpful. Every time I go to the post office, where customers are served with exemplary speed as well as friendliness, the staff always apologise for keeping me waiting.
In general, British society believes it’s good to be nice. And indeed, this does enable a remarkably diverse population to coexist peacefully and, what’s more, form friendships across what might elsewhere be considered insurmountable cultural barriers. So two of today’s readings can be hard for us to hear. We’re not accustomed to calling people wicked to their faces, whatever God may tell Ezekiel to do; and we prefer to avoid the sort of face-to-face confrontation as Jesus seems to be advocating. In view of this, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” from the second reading is a lot more welcome.
A lot of factors can be at work in our aversion to confrontation. Leaving aside obvious cultural conditioning, there can be a healthy wish to avoid judging others (cf Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37). Supposing I’m the one in the wrong? We can also fear rejection – if we have a difference with a friend, isn’t it better to say nothing for the sake of the friendship? Or even with someone who’s not a friend, just to “keep the peace”? The trouble, of course, is that papering over the cracks like this seldom works. It usually leads to misunderstanding and, at some point, an explosion. The other person may be genuinely unaware that he or she had done anything wrong, and feel aggrieved that the matter wasn’t raised earlier.
In particular, we can easily be tempted to complain about the person to everyone else while staying “nice” to him or her… Not only is this hypocritical, but sooner or later it will get back to the person concerned. I once lived with a brother who never committed this fault. The flip side was that he could quite confrontational! But my abiding memory of him – the Lord has since taken him to himself – is that he was a very holy man, because if he was in the wrong he would immediately apologise and ask forgiveness.
So Jesus’ teaching – which includes taking the matter beyond having it out one to one, to calling witnesses if necessary – is actually about keeping the community of the Church united, living in true peace, not just in the absence of conflict. Indeed, superficial niceness can too easily become a cover for indifference, dishonesty and downright cruelty.
In fact, as Christians we should be prepared to have it out with others where we feel sinned against, precisely because we love them, and would want them to do the same for us. This is what’s behind the seemingly harsh words of the Lord to Ezekiel. Sin is anything which breaks the bonds of love, which divides us within ourselves as well as divides us from God and from others. Salvation is God’s gift of healing and raising up, of making whole again what was broken. As I said earlier, we’re right to fear judging others. But the prophet Ezekiel could speak tough words with a clear conscience because he had been anointed and sent by the Lord (Ezekiel 1-2). We too were anointed as prophets when were baptised. In any situation of conflict, if we pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift to speak and hear the truth, and we’ll find ourselves graced to heal wounds – starting with our own.