Triangulation (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Probably many of you are familiar with the term “triangulation.”  Triangulation, at least as a psychological term, is defined as “a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.”

In simplest terms, this means I try to get you to go and tell somebody else what to do.  Sometimes, triangulation is intentional and even manipulative.  Sometimes, it’s a way of avoiding conflict with somebody else.  And sometimes, it’s so ingrained in dysfunctional systems that it happens unconsciously. 

But it happens all the time.  And it’s striking to me in today’s Gospel reading that this is the second time in less than 2 chapters where somebody tries to triangulate Jesus.  It happens right at the beginning of today’s reading: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  And it happened back at the end of chapter 10, where Martha is ticked off at Mary for not helping her. And so she says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.” (10:41)

“Teacher, tell my brother he’s wrong!”  “Lord, tell my sister she’s wrong!”  They’re both picture perfect examples of attempts at triangulation.

And one of the striking qualities of Jesus is that in both these and other instances, he refuses to be drawn into the triangle.  In fact, the response to the guy in the crowd is really blunt, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Well, honestly, it seems that God did!  Didn’t God make Jesus Lord and judge of the living and the dead?

Actually, yes.  But I don’t think Jesus is rejecting the role God gave him in this response.  Instead, he’s rejecting being triangulated into somebody else’s argument and conflict.  That is, Jesus came to save; and to heal; and to draw us closer to God.  But he didn’t come to be a pawn in somebody else’s chess game.

And it’s important to note that, at least in these two instances – Martha and the guy in the crowd – these are not people hostile to Jesus who are trying to misuse the relationship.  But in refusing to be drawn into these arguments, Jesus is refusing to play the triangulation game.

So what actually is so bad about trying to draw Jesus into these seemingly minor conflicts?  In both cases, when people seek to triangulate Jesus into their conflicts it means that they aren’t:

  • talking to their brother or sister; they aren’t communicating with each other, even though they’re standing right next to that person…
  • listening to Jesus – both are too wrapped up in what Jesus should say to somebody else, that they can’t really listen to what Jesus is saying to them…
  • focusing on who Jesus is calling them to be and to become; instead, they just really want Jesus to tell them that they’re right and the other person is wrong…

Now, psychologists constantly warn us against the dangers of triangulation in our personal relationships.  But it’s also important for us to guard against situations and language in which God is triangulated into our disputes with each other.

Indeed, one of the real challenges for Christian faith in today’s world is that both Christians and non-Christians have experienced Jesus as a form of triangulation.  And it happens like this: “Being a Christian means you take stand for or against X; if you don’t, I throw a Bible verse at you (usually out of context!) and show you how God says you’re wrong!”

It’s a technique used by Christians across the political spectrum.  (I have Christian Facebook friends on the right and left who both do this!) And even if they’re not trying to do it, it’s simply a more sophisticated way of saying, “Lord, tell my brother that he’s wrong! Lord, show my sister that she’s wrong!”

This gets done so often that many people – Christians and non-Christians alike – end up defining Christianity by how you use Jesus to show that the other person is wrong, immoral or uncaring.  And it drives people away from Jesus.

This past week, you may have seen news about a former pastor named Joshua Harris.  Until about 4 years ago, he had been the lead pastor at Covenant Life Church, a big mega-church here in Gaithersburg. He was known throughout the country for a number of his books in which he took a very conservative position on sex, the role of women and homosexuality.  The books went to great length to show people how God said they were wrong unless they agreed with Joshua Harris’ views.

But a couple of years ago, after he had left Covenant Life, Joshua Harris began to change his views on these things.  He did a Ted Talk in 2017 entitled “Strong Enough to be Wrong” in which he talked about how his views had changed, and apologized to people he had hurt.

But the thing that made news this week was that he announced on Instagram that he no longer considered himself a Christian. He wrote, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”  He didn’t elaborate on what those “measurements” were for defining being a Christian.

But I worried that for him, and many others, the “defining measurement” for being a Christian is how you stand against what somebody else is saying or doing.  That is, how you tell somebody else that God says they’re wrong.  And when you stop doing that, what’s left?

And maybe I’m wrong about what’s bothering Joshua Harris about being a Christian.  But I do know that for many people – both Christians and non-Christians – Christianity has become simply a message of triangulation that tells people that God tells you you’re right or you’re wrong based on your social or political beliefs.

But over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus rejects that kind of stuff.  Instead, in refusing to be drawn into the triangles, Jesus makes one of the “defining measurements” of being his followers:

  • Talking to, and being in relationship, with one another – not so that we can “change” them, but so that we can understand and be understood by one another, and even work together in spite of our differences … (Jesus called his first disciples to live and work together, even though, and maybe especially because, they were a very diverse lot of people; and they stayed that way…!)
  • Listening to Jesus, and what Jesus has to say to each of us – instead of me trying to tell you what God really wants for your life (because if you live that way, I’ll be more comfortable around you…!)
  • Focusing on being and becoming the kind of person God wants me to be – because in the end, if you decide “I’m going to live like this because of my relationship with Jesus” that is WAY more powerful than telling somebody else the way you think Jesus says they should live …

Jesus often encountered people who were caught up in conflicts.  And many of those conflicts were serious, and needed to be addressed and dealt with.

But Jesus refused to get triangulated into those conflicts because Jesus wanted to make it clear that God’s presence and God’s help transcends and overshadows any of the conflicts we find ourselves in.

And because of God’s transcendent presence and power in our lives, we’re free to fully engage with one another without feeling threatened if other people don’t agree with us.  We’re free to listen to what Jesus has to say to each one of us, without being distracted by what we think others should be hearing.  And most of all, we’re free to be and become the people Jesus calls each one of us to be, so that our own lives and our own witness can be part of the presence of Jesus that others can see and experience in our world.