Only in church do you get murder, divorce, adultery, lake of fire, cut out your eye and while you’re at it, take off your hand—all in one cheery reading! Well, here we go!
In a recent article from The Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall talk about “the feedback fallacy”, the idea that the more you critique an employee, the better they’ll perform. In fact, they say, “neuroscience reveals that criticism provokes the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response and inhibits learning. Instead, when managers see a great outcome, they should turn to the person who created it, and say, ‘Yes! That!’”
“[W]e grow most when people focus on our strengths. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly.”
We have many a manager and many an employee in the congregation here at St Clement’s. I hope after the service you’ll tell me what you think of this “feedback fallacy” and whether it rings true in your own life? In the meantime, I’d like to invite us all into a bit of a thought experiment.
I wonder, if we were to view the gospel through the lens of the feedback fallacy, what would we find? Would we see, for example, that centuries of telling people not to get divorced because the Bible says so hasn’t actually resulted in fewer people getting divorced? Would we see that shunning people who have cheated on their spouses, hasn’t resulted in fewer people committing adultery? Would we see that the church’s attempt to correct any number of moral failings by focusing on what a person does poorly, has not, in fact, produced less fallible people?
In our gospel reading today, a group of people, no bigger than a Parish Council, or a condo board, they come to Jesus with a list of concerns and they say, “Rabbi, sort this out for us, please.”
And, Jesus says (this is the Helen Dunn translation), “When you have a beef with someone, you can go to them, and you can get in their face and you can say, ‘You’re a fool!’. You can call them out for everything they’re doing wrong. You can go and tell all of your friends how awful they are. And, you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. This person has harmed you and you are angry.”
(Paraphrase continued) “But, consider this” Jesus goes on. “What if, instead, you were to seek first to be reconciled with that person: to hold in your heart the possibility that the person with whom you have an issue is loved by God?
“Yes! That!” Jesus says.
Someone else comes to Jesus and says (paraphrased), “Jesus, tell them it’s okay for us to divorce our wives. It’s in the law; it’s legal! Just tell them it’s fine, will you?”
And, Jesus says, “You’re not wrong. But, consider this: the woman you are divorcing is loved by God.”
Divorce in our time and place, though it still carries with it some stigma, it can be and often is a means of grace. To divorce a woman in Jesus’s time would have been to put her into poverty, alienating her from her family and her community. Sending a woman away with a certificate of divorce fulfilled the letter of the law, sure, just as going to church every Sunday to get your sins forgiven without first patching things up with your neighbour fulfils the letter of the law.
But, reconciliation happens when not only the letter but the spirit of the law also is met. When people acknowledge one another as loved by God and ensure that, whether they get a divorce or stay married, whether their problems get fixed right away or remain a work in progress, that regardless, each person is cared for along the way.
“Yes, that,” Jesus says.
We had a bit of an unusual first reading this morning. (I can’t believe I’m saying our first reading was unusual as if our gospel was just par for the course!). I like when we have unusual readings, because it makes our ears perk up.
The Book of Sirach is one such reading. It’s not in every Bible; Anglicans are among the Christian traditions who include it. It’s a great book, I think. It’s a book of wisdom, some say a collection of moral teachings. Everything from how to be a good parent to how to be a good spouse to how to be a good employee. Ethics in healthcare is even in there, and, get this, how artists ought to view their work as worship. How cool is that?
Chapter 15—the chapter we listened to today—this is my favourite part: “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action.”
I think of this passage as a kind of advice column. Someone has written in, “Dear Abby, I have this problem, can you help?”
And, after giving some practical advice, the columnist pauses and says, “Look, there are going to be any number of decisions that you'll have to make in life—whether in parenting, or caregiving, in work, or school. You can make decisions that fulfil the letter of the law and still wind up profoundly unhappy. So, make the choices that fulfil the spirit of the law, that ensure people, yourself included, get the care they need, and you will be good with God and with your neighbour.
“For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything.” Not because God is up in the sky keeping a scorecard, but because God sees and dwells with us in spirit and in flesh, knowing the complexity of human life. When we’ve had it up to here with our friend or family member or neighbour and can no longer see each other’s strengths, at least let us see one another as loved by God and in need of care. This is what it means to first be reconciled, this is what it means to choose life. Amen.
Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, “The Feedback Fallacy” in Harvard Business Review, accessed online (paywall) on 11 February 2023 at
Sermon image: “Mended heart,” by Giorgio Tuscani, accessed online on 12 February 2023 at https://objects.artspan.com/member/gtuscani/1200/3332859.jpg