Matthew 18:15-20, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
In some of the recollections I’ve given, very good-hearted people have asked me something like this: “So, Fr Arnel, when someone wrongs us, must we really follow the process that Jesus stipulates in Matthew? Like, we talk to the person first, to point out his mistake, and if he doesn’t listen, then we bring two or three witnesses? And if that doesn’t work, then we go to…the Church…or a priest maybe, to what, intercede for us? And if none of those work, then do we now have the Lord’s permission to end the friendship? Ganon ba ‘yon, Father?”
Well, see, the process of reconciliation we read in Matthew, this is a description of how the early Christian communities dealt with serious offenders. What we find in today’s Gospel is an official juridical process that the early Christians used on members caught stealing from the community, for example, or committing adultery, or engaging in witchcraft, etc. But it’s not certain if Matthew meant for the juridical process to be applied to everyday interpersonal crises. By the way, to treat someone “as you would treat a Gentile or tax-collector” is what we would call today as “excommunication”. A Christian who refused to own up to his offense was finally ostracized. But only as the last step in a process that gave him plenty of opportunity to explain himself and to make amends.
Today, it’s difficult enough to take the first step, isn’t it? To go up to someone and point out his fault. How much more the rest of the steps if we were to really follow Matthew. And if I know myself and other people, what makes it so difficult for us to go and point out someone’s fault is that we’re almost sure he’s going to put up a fight. We’re almost sure he will be defensive. We’re almost sure he’s not going to admit it. Why are we almost sure? Because that’s exactly how we would behave if the tables were turned, wouldn’t we? We know ourselves only too well. We know that if we point out someone’s fault, we should be ready to be told ours. That’s why we’d rather not do that first step. What do we do instead? We jump to the last step, the “excommunication”, sa binisaya pa, “ikskumunikishon”, just kidding, magbongol, silent treatment—sometimes lasting for years!
Do you notice, sisters and brothers, if ever someone points out our faults and we have to apologize, our apology is often, how shall I call it, often with a hook? “Bro, if I hurt you, I’m sorry ha…but I did it because you….” “Kung nasaktan ka man sa sinabi ko tungkol sa ‘yo, sige sorry na. Pero kasi naman, ikaw….” Apology with a hook, apology with a ganti? And it fascinates me that many of us adults have become that way, because our parents taught us a different thing when we were children. Remember? When we either purposely or inadvertently hurt another kid, and that kid cried, remember how our parents would go? “O, what will you say? What will you say?” Then we said, “Sorry,” period. No hook, no ganti. And we moved right back into friendship and moved on. When did we start growing that hook? Di ba? That’s why the first step in Matthew’s process of reconciliation is so scary, that we skip it altogether, because it hooks us.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last night, we had guests. My kids already know that they have to go upstairs and sleep by 8pm. But they kept going past 8, noisy in the living room. I warned them twice. Nothing. Then, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I stormed into the living room and berated them. The guests heard me lose my temper, Father. I embarrassed my children.” Then I asked him, “Sir, did you apologize to your kids already?” And he said, “Apologize to my kids? That’s why I’m here to confess to ask God’s forgiveness!” And that’s what we think. That’s what we do. We hurt each other, but we apologize to God, and we think that solves the problem and we will go to heaven.
Part of the problem is really us, priests. We always preach, “Forgive, forgive. If you want God to forgive you, forgive others.” But how often do we hear our priests say, “Apologize, apologize, learn to apologize”? In fact, we lose our capacity to forgive when we don’t think we ever have to say we’re sorry. Hindi n’yo po ba napapansin, kapag hindi marunong mag-sorry ang isang tao, malamang hindi rin ‘yan madali magpatawad. We often hear that forgiving will transform us for the better. And it fascinates me why we don’t say the same thing of apologizing. When in fact, I have seen with my own eyes, when proud people finally and painfully learn to say they’re sorry, then, they are changed! If we are constantly unapologetic, sisters and brothers, we become unforgiving. At kung iniisip nating hindi natin kailangan mag-sorry at kuripot pa tayong magpatawad, may magandang tanong d’yan: Diyos ka na ba? When nobody dares point out our faults, sisters and brothers, is it because we have none, or it is because it’s useless?
You can forget everything that I’ve said so far, dear sisters and brothers. But this last thing I’ll say, I hope you remember. If God pointed out to us our every fault, we would not endure it. And yet, God has forgiven us more than we have ever apologized…to him or to one another. That’s why we wish to learn to apologize and forgive more—not so much so that God will forgive us. No. We want to apologize and forgive more because God has forgiven us—constantly, endlessly, relentlessly forgiven us.