A Love Story – John Foley, SJ

Matthew 18:15-20, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Mass will be all about love. Not the hearts and flowers type, but nitty-gritty stuff. What happens when someone misbehaves and hurts me? What should I do, “punch em out”?

No. Jesus lays out a detailed plan in the Gospel about how to help someone within the Christian community who has done you harm. This plan applies whatever the damage was: saying unfair things behind your back, embarrassing you in public, stealing, or unfaithfulness, etc. You name it.

First, I should go to the person and let him or her know that I believe I have been hurt by what they did or said. This is not an opportunity to “let my anger out,” to get my rights, or worse, to hurt them in return. It is an attempt to repair the relationship, no matter whose fault it was. It is an effort to help, not hurt.

Of course, in Sunday’s story, Jesus is presuming that there is a basis of love between you and the other person. Another way to say it is that you are both members of “the church.”

What if going to the person does not succeed? Jesus says you should next take two or three witnesses along. They will back you up if your interpretation of the problem is correct. If the person still does not listen, keep trying, he says. Tell the church. Continue to work on it until the matter is smoothed out. Let truth and forgiveness rule.

The underlying reason behind this whole strategy is hinted at in the First Reading. There the Lord says that Ezekiel must speak out to a person when they are doing evil and have been warned by the Lord.

The point is not to punish the them, or to turn Ezekiel into a police interrogation unit. The point is to try and help that person back from the danger to their own self and to the community. “Frighten the poor sheep back,” as the poet Hopkins puts it. You must speak out.

A personal story. I had a terrible disagreement with a colleague/friend years ago. We were working together on a musical event and it seemed to each of us that the other had done something unforgivable, hurtful and unprofessional. Believe me, I do not know who was right and who was wrong. But we spoke about it one-on-one and gradually came back into each other’s good graces. We remained perhaps wary—but still very good friends.

The same thing happened again several summers later. I was the one who “blew up” because of the wrongs I absolutely knew were being done to me in rehearsal. I even sent a peeved email. My friend sent a scorcher in return.

Then we worked together to create a great show! We knew instinctively what had happened. “We were both tired and quite stressed out, weren’t we?” my friend said. “So we each did our stressed-out thing. But we were both trying to help the show be wonderful.”

As you can guess, we remain great friends. This is how it can work when Christians are “all too human” and hurt each other. It is not a matter of who broke the rules. All the rules are summed up in a single axiom, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Second Reading).

How good it is.

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