Sunday of week 23 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

WE ARE REMINDED TODAY that to belong to the Church is to belong to a community of brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that being a Christian is not a private, purely personal affair, although that is the way some people seem to behave. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”, Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The teaching of the Gospel is that indeed I am responsible for my brothers and sisters.

Not only that, our relationship with Jesus, with God, depends intimately on how we relate with other people – be they members of our own family or complete strangers. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) and “As often as you did/did not do it to the very least of my brothers and sisters, you did/did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40,45).

Many of us are reluctant to involve ourselves in other people’s affairs. Sometimes that attitude is good and wholesome but sometimes it is not. Our government, for instance, now frequently asks us to report on instances of child abuse or spouse abuse of which we may be aware. Such behaviour against defenceless people is something about which we need to be really concerned, to the point of taking appropriate action to protect the victims. If such things happen within the family it can be even more difficult to take action. It is not easy to see one’s father or mother brought away by the police or investigated by a social worker, even though it may be in the best interests of all concerned.

Community relations

The Gospel passage of today deals with such situations within the Christian community. The whole of Matthew chapter 18 is a discourse on mutual relations within the Christian community and, especially, what to do when divisions arise, as must inevitably happen. We are communities of sinners trying to be saints and there are many pitfalls on the way. In today’s passage we see first of all a three-stage procedure for dealing with a community member who has done “something wrong”. Presumably, it is some form of external behaviour which is harmful to the quality of the community’s witnessing to the Gospel.

The whole thrust of the passage is that we should all work towards reconciliation rather than punishment. There will also be a desire to keep the issue at as low a profile as possible. (We read regularly in our newspapers what happens when people drag their mutual grievances against each other to the law courts.) So, the first stage is for the two people concerned to solve the issue among themselves. If it works out at that level, that is the ideal situation. “You have won back your brother.” “Won back” here is a Jewish technical term for conversion. For it is not enough that he merely stop his offensive behaviour, there also needs to be a genuine change of attitude and a genuine reconciliation with the offending person.

If the offender refuses to listen to his “brother”, then others should be brought in as confirming witnesses. And, if he refuses to listen to these, then “tell it to the church” (Greek, ekklesia, ekklhsia). ‘Church’ is here understood as the local community because, in the thinking of the Christian Testament, each self-contained community is a ‘church’ (cf. for example, Revelation 1:4-3:22, where letters are written to seven ‘churches’ or local communities).

Exclusion

In the last resort, if the offender still refuses to listen or to change, “treat him like a pagan or tax collector”. That is to say, let him be put out from the community and be regarded as an outsider. Obviously, this is a drastic and final step and to be taken not in a spirit of revenge or vindictiveness but out of real concern for the wellbeing of the whole community. It requires very sensitive discernment because it is easy to ‘get rid of’ someone who may in fact be telling the community some wholesome truths it needs to hear.

Many genuinely prophetic people have had this experience. It is easy to be too concerned about the “respectable image” of the community or being seen as in conflict with the established authorities. The only wellbeing that can justify such ‘ex-communication’ is behaviour that is totally at variance with the community’s mission to be the Body of Christ and to be the witness of the Gospel message.

How, someone may ask, can this be squared with Jesus’ openness to sinners, including corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes, or with the story of the Prodigal Son? But Jesus’ reception of these people was not unconditional. It depended on their change of heart and the abandonment of their sinful ways. Jesus sat down with sinners, not because he liked them more than good people but because he hoped to lead them back. When he forgave the woman taken in adultery, he told her to “sin no more”. The Prodigal Son was received with open arms after he had decided he no longer wanted to live his life of debauchery and, by his own decision, came back to his father.

The common good and the individual good

So, it is in the interests of both the community and of the individual that, if he/she persists in anti-Christian behaviour, that he/she be separated from the community. We practice this partly by not allowing a person in serious sin to communicate during the Eucharist. There is a serious contradiction between a person acting contrary to the Gospel and wanting to share in the Body of Christ, which has been wounded by his/her behaviour.

The situation, obviously, can be changed by a change in the attitude and behaviour of the wrongdoer. Once he repents and converts, he will be – indeed must be – received back with joy.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven…” These words indicate that the community has the power, given it by God, to make a judgement on who is fit to belong to the Body of Christ. It is a necessary power to preserve the integrity of the community as a witness to the Gospel. It is also a dangerous power which can be abused.

Again, “If two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where [even] two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” Wherever Christians meet together in truth and love, whether it be for prayer, study, or decision-making, Jesus is present and Jesus speaks and acts. This is both a tremendous gift and also a great responsibility.

Centrality of love

And so it is that Paul in the Second Readings puts the emphasis on love. It contains all other Christian obligations. “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” To keep the commandments without love – and it is possible – is to become not another Jesus but a Pharisee. If I really care in compassion for my neighbour then I know that I am keeping the commandments and that I also am loving God. I have to look carefully at the needs of my brothers and sisters. If I see them hurting themselves or someone else, that is my business.

So the First Reading says, “[If] you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. But not absolutely. “If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin, but you yourself will have saved your life.” I have a responsibility to save my brother in sin, but I am not ultimately responsible for his salvation. The last choice will always be with him. There is no need, after one has done one’s best, to feel guilt over the evil behaviour of another.

Only path to salvation

It is easy to think that being a Catholic means being concerned with the relationship between God and me, that my duty is to “save my soul”. But, in fact, the only way to “save my soul” is by becoming a truly loving and caring person as part of a loving and caring community of people united in Christ. And sometimes that caring may involve bringing the brother/sister face to face with the loving demands of the Gospel. We do not help each other by turning a blind eye to behaviour which is clearly unchristian.

As a community we have a responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. We do not further the witness of a loving community when we, in false “charity”, ignore social problems such as drug-taking, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, violence in the home, discrimination against the physically and mentally handicapped, racial exploitation and the like taking place in our parish community. It is not enough just to deal with these things in the privacy of “Confession” for, ultimately, reconciliation must be at the community level. And, as such, this is the responsibility of the community exercising its calling as the Body of Christ.

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