(By the way: Dr. LaMothe is our professor for Pastoral Care and Counseling.)
~ Given at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas Chapel), Saint Meinrad, IN – October 23rd, 2011.
I don’t know, perhaps I’m missing something, or perhaps I’ve taken one too many classes with Dr. LaMothe, but it just seems to me like so many of our problems—particularly our relationship problems—boil down to a struggle with differentiation. Differentiation, as many scholars define it, is one’s ability to be his or herself in relation to others. In other words, it is knowing who I am as a distinct person in relation to another person. I like this notion because it touches on something very human: that is, that we come to know ourselves more fully—in a sense, that we become more human—when we recognize our distinctiveness in relation to another person, which gets right to the core of our theological understanding of the human person: that we are all members of one body, distinct but related.
A struggle with differentiation, then, is when our sense of self becomes dependent on others. In other words, when we find that we need others to act in a certain way in order to feel good about ourselves and to function within a group of others then we are probably struggling to be (or, rather, to know) who we are in relation to others. Perhaps an example will help illustrate this. First, for those of you who aren’t from Indiana you should know that in Indiana you are either for Purdue University and against Indiana University or vice versa (unless of course you aren’t from Indiana originally, in which case you don’t care because you realize that it’s just not important). Imagine what it would be like if on any given day a small group of people (let’s say ten or so) decided to walk through the campus of IU completely decked out in black and gold Purdue paraphernalia. For students at IU this demonstration would be tantamount to a hostile invasion. Perhaps, then, you could imagine the tension that would build as this group walked through campus. My guess is that it wouldn’t be but a few minutes before this group began to receive hostile and threatening comments from IU students passing them by. In their anxiety at this apparent threat to their identity as Hoosiers, these students would react by attempting to shame the members of this group for their non-conformity.
We see further examples of this in the readings from the Gospel of Matthew that we’ve heard over the past few weeks. In these passages, we see the Pharisees react to Jesus’ non-conformity in his teaching and his apparent attacks on their authority by sending wave after wave of experts to try and catch Jesus in saying something either heretical that they could use to discredit his teachings or blasphemous that they could use to condemn him. They were anxious about his teaching and reacted in an attempt to shame him for his non-conformity.
Now, in some sense, the Pharisees had good reason to be anxious. As the established protectors of Jewish orthodoxy it was their duty to ensure that all rabbis were espousing right teaching. This was further exacerbated, however, by the Roman occupation, which, while allowing them to continue to practice their religion, was quick to react to anything that smelled of a revolution. Therefore, Jesus’ talk about a “Kingdom at hand” and of the “anointed of God” having arrived would have increased the Pharisees’ anxiety tenfold. Nevertheless, instead of engaging Jesus’ teaching and either embracing it for what it was or ignoring it and thus “teaching around it,” they become reactive, rejecting Jesus’ teaching and seeking to force him to change and to conform to their image. Because they couldn’t be themselves—the established leaders of the Jewish faith—in relation to Jesus, Jesus either had to change or be annihilated.
It’s no stretch to see that this kind of reactive, undifferentiated response is a significant source of conflict in our own lives today. Our culture is given over to polarizations and, thus, in many ways our congregations are divided. How often do we find ourselves launching into criticisms about what others in the church are saying or doing? I suspect that there are few of us in this chapel whose anxiety wouldn’t shoot through the roof when he or she encountered someone who was convinced that women would soon be ordained priests or be able to sit calmly while a fellow Catholic went around teaching that same-sex marriages are valid. Immediately our defenses would shoot up and our responses would move towards an attempt to force them to change and to conform to our image of a “good Catholic.” My brothers and sisters, no matter what the situation is, when our anxiety levels start to rise and we begin to become reactive, it’s a sign that we are struggling with differentiation, that is, we are struggling to be who we are in relation to others.
Even though the Pharisees had confronted Jesus in their struggle with differentiation, we see that Jesus nonetheless puts forth a well-differentiated response. Knowing that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, we can imagine that he felt some anxiety when the scribe approached him. Nonetheless, he was able to check his anxiety and respond their question instead of reacting to their malicious intentions. He reminded them that an authentic love of God is inextricably intertwined with a genuine love of neighbor. More important, however, is that Jesus models this teaching for them in the very way he responds to them. Although the Pharisees were reacting to their anxiety about Jesus’ teaching, Jesus refuses to react to them. Rather, he responds to them in love, showing his ability to be who he is in relation to them, even when they relate to him in hostility.
For us, the same certainly holds true. When we approach God out of our anxiety—whether it be anger, frustration, fear, or doubt—he is always able to receive us and to respond to us in a way that is in no way reactive to how we approached him. Always capable of being who he is in relation to us, God stands always ready to respond to us in love, a response which then becomes for us like a mirror, showing us who we really are in relation to him—his sons and daughters—and thus enabling us to be who we are in relation to others, which frees us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ ultimate act of differentiation is what we see on that cross and in what we will eat from this altar. In submitting to the indescribable torture and death on the cross and to being made present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the form of bread and wine, Jesus acknowledges who he is in relation both to God and to us: the Son of God and the Son of man, the King of All Ages and the child of a peasant girl, the Beloved of the Father and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world… My brothers and sisters, let us remember today who we are—sons and daughters and brothers and sisters—and let us not forget the commandment Jesus has given us to love God and to love our neighbor, a love that intermingles most perfectly when we approach this altar in unity and peace. My brothers and sisters, let us be.