It’s been a rather poor season this year for Andy Murray, our Scottish tennis player – if he were successful he would a British – seemingly sealed by his recent defeat at the US Open. But despite losing to Novak Djokovic his game was actually complimented by many commentators as of high quality, particularly in comparison with his earlier defeats. It seems that his new coach has begun having a positive impact on Andy. His previous spell of victories was ascribed to his other coach, Ivan Lendl. Even the champion needs someone to improve and to keep his highest standards.
I think I can quite safely say that nobody likes to be criticized or questioned; we’d rather prefer to be praised, appreciated and thanked, taken at our face value. On the other hand we tend not to be openly and directly critical towards others, keeping our negative opinions to ourselves and those we gossip with. I think that politeness and good manners are deeply embedded in the Scottish mind-set, which is really pleasant, but sometimes hopeless. I remember being politely praised by parishioners in Elgin for my English, though I knew it was really poor, as they did too. Their genuine politeness was killing off any prospect of improving my language skills. Only when I found a paid tutor, pointing out my mistakes and correcting them, I managed to make real progress and to develop my English significantly.
It seems that the most common way of expressing opinions deemed negative or critical is an argument, when suppressed emotions and frustration cannot be contained any more, and burst out of control, sparked usually by a rather insignificant and disproportionate happening. Such an exchange is rarely constructive; more often it’s a harmful blow charged with accusations, misjudgement and resentments, deepening the rift between those involved. This kind of ‘sorting things out’ does everything but, as the person attacked in such a way turns up his or her defence systems, unwilling and unable to accept the accusations. The only reason for doing this is venting frustration, and that’s one of the worst ways of doing it.
The way of ‘sorting things out’ presented by Jesus in today’s gospel has proved its effectiveness many times, and it’s still an efficient way of dealing with other people. Talking to someone face to face about his or her imperfections or wrong-doings seems to require a certain dose of courage; that might be true, but it’s not the case. The real requirement is a set of well-thought-through arguments. Cold logic is far more effective than hot emotions, as it’s addressing the head not the heart. Finding and forming logical arguments is the most challenging part of any successful intervention.
Another important aspect is a discernment whether the problem is real or imagined; whether the problem lies with my partner, neighbour, workmate – or myself. Sometimes we want others to adapt to our own standards, customs, habits and ways of doing things, though they are not necessarily the best ones. In practical terms in means that talking to someone about them we ought to be ready to listen to their criticism, to accept that criticism if it’s right, and to correct ourselves. In this, and only this way, we can mutually help ourselves to be better and loveable persons.
Jesus doesn’t hold to illusions that everybody is willing to correct their wrong ways, and he admits that sometimes the only way of staying sane is parting company with them. This a streak of realism in the apparently idealistic Gospel. Giving up is sometimes the only way forward, because each one of us has only one life with its limited timespan. Even then there’s an undiminished hope for them and for us: God never gives up, because at His disposal He’s got all the time in the world.