Jared Diamond is a professor of geography based out of the University of California in Los Angeles. He has dedicated a good part of his life to studying indigenous people, particularly how their traditional cultures have been able to survive through modernity and what they have to teach us in civilizations which are at least more technologically advanced.
In a recent radio interview, he told the story of an incident which he witnessed in Papua New Guinea. A young man from a tribe had been killed in an accident caused by another young man. Predictably, the family of the man who had been killed were overwhelmed with grief at their son’s untimely death. However, instead of seeking revenge on the young man who killed him, they invited him to a banquet.
In the course of the meal, the family members each took a turn expressing through their tears how much they missed their loved one. They told stories of the mischief he would get into as a little boy, what he had been able to accomplish as he entered manhood and all the hopes for his future which were now shattered by his death.
After they had finished, they allowed the young man who had killed him to speak. Sobbing and beating his breast, he told the family how sorry he was about the accident. He also had known the young man who was killed and grieved at his loss. Admitting that it could not replace the life he had taken, he offered them the gift of a pig which traditionally is offered in compensation for a wrong committed. In conclusion, he let them know in no uncertain terms that he wished he had died in his place.
After everyone had finished speaking, they all sat in silence for a time. Then the family stood up and each embraced the young man who had killed their loved one. They assured him that he had been forgiven and that they would not seek revenge. Everyone left the meal with some measure of consolation and peace in their hearts.
Professor Diamond contrasted this with how we in the developed world would handle the same situation. Most likely, the police would get involved, investigating the accident to determine how it happened and what degree of guilt there was on the part of the person who had committed it. There would follow a long court process to either punish the young man or award compensation to the family. A great deal of time and money would be spent. However, all the while the family would be left with their heart wrenching grief and the young man would spend a lifetime burdened with guilt. Money might be exchanged or punishment might be doled out, however no real reconciliation or healing would ever take place.
In today’s gospel, Jesus has some pointed words to say to us who have gathered to make our offering at this altar: “...if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Can any of us here today honestly say that we can think of no one who has anything against us? Is there anyone here today who can say that he has never wronged anyone or that she has no one to say “I’m sorry” too? If we were to take Jesus’ words literally, I imagine that this church would empty out very quickly.
We have a lot to learn from the people of Papua New Guinea. They live the spirit of today’s gospel in a vibrant way. Their primary concern was not with fairness, with finding fault or with settling a score. Rather, they sought healing, reconciliation and peace.
All families experience feuds which can last over decades. They can simmer under the surface over time or explode into all out shouting matches. How can we be instruments of Jesus’ peace to our families? Are there family members we can contact to offer forgiveness to even if we think they are the ones in the wrong? Are there members of our family that we could work at bringing together to settle their differences? What is keeping us from taking the initiative to bring reconciliation to our families? Is it pride or fear? Then, let us pray to our Heavenly Father to give us the humility and courage to say, “I’m sorry”, and to offer forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us.
No parish is immune to divisions and cliques. Even as we preach love and forgiveness, we bicker behind one another’s backs and spread gossip. Such behaviour tarnishes the image of Christ in a community and renders it inhospitable and unwelcoming. Beginning with me, each of us must make an effort to avoid gossiping at all costs. We must find a way to put aside our desire to control and our need to make ourselves the center of attention. Whatever it may cost us, we must ask each other for forgiveness and be willing to extend pardon even to those who are unaware that they have hurt us. If we cannot do this, then our worship will be in vain. It will produce no fruits in us. Our righteous will not surpass that of the scribes or Pharisees who did all the right things but with a cold, hard heart.
As we approach the altar today, we each have much soul searching to do. Jesus waits for us with open arms. He comes to bring us the healing, peace and reconciliation He won for us on the cross. He wants to set our hearts on fire with love. However, if we are harboring bitterness and scorn in them, that fire will go out. As we receive His Body and Blood let us earnestly ask Him to reveal to us at least one person we can be reconciled with. Let us ask Him for both the opportunity and the courage to carry it through. Then the peace of God will be a reality in our lives and our offering will be acceptable to our Heavenly Father.