Matthew 18:15-20, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
About love, 6-year old Nikka has this to say: “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”
For that matter, if you long to love God, if you desire redemption, if you want to fulfill the law, St Paul tells us, then you are only to “love your neighbor as yourself” because love is the sum of all there is to follow in the law.
All this is great and of course doable when your neighbor is lovable. What are we to do when the neighbor is difficult and repulsive, when the other hurts you and wrongs you, the one whose heart is stone?
Jesus tells us today, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Alone. In the first instance, go and settle this between the two of you alone. Do not run to his superior or supervisor or mother; do not post or tweet to the whole wide world; do not even let a whisper out for the gossip of others.
If he does not listen, bring along one or two others so that they may give independent witness to the truth of his transgression. If he still refuses, then bring the whole matter to the community, the church. If he continues to be stubborn, then you have nothing any more to do with him.
This three-step progression in fraternal or communal correction invites us to reflect on what God keeps calling us to do in our life of faith. God keeps calling us to a life of reconciliation before condemnation; God asks us to be responsible for one another; God summons us to build community.
First, the offering of correction or feedback is more about reconciliation before it is about judgment and punishment. It gives the one who was wronged us an opening for contrition and conversion and reparation before closing the door in outright condemnation. It may seem naive but these openings that are given the wicked one, the one with the heart of stone, are more a reflection of God who takes a chance on our coming to our senses.
The stories of mercy, the prodigal son, the woman caught in adultery, the calling of Peter, are all about God giving us chances. Through the whispers of solitary prayer or the voices of others or of the community, God calls us to respond to these chances for reconciliation with heartfelt contrition, conversion, and atonement.
Second, we are called to be responsible for one another. That means taking care of each other. That means caring for the one who has wronged us, caring enough to speak out “to dissuade the wicked from his way”, as the prophet Ezekiel proclaims in our first reading today. We have been warned: if we withhold correction, we too shall be held responsible for his going astray.
As the aggrieved party, we seldom reflect on the gravity of this sin of omission, this sin of indifference or apathy. When we are told by our Lord to do a heart-to-heart first with the one who has hurt or wronged us, it is more out of urgent concern for the one with the heart of stone.
Third and last, we are called to build community. Our faith is more than just a private or interpersonal affair. Our own self-understanding as church is that we are called to live together as the Body of Christ in the world today. When this Body is maimed or wronged or torn apart, we have a responsibility to speak out. When we choose to remain silent or hidden, our sin of omission only exposes our consent and complicity.
Jesus’ life and ministry had a social direction: he was not just preaching to the choir or the converted. He was and is to be found at the margins, with social outcasts and sinners, tax collectors and adulterers, and those excluded by the community. He came to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, ushering in a different kind of kingdom that was at hand. And he built a community around his prophetic love by rebuking the proud at the center and shepherding those who were fraying at the edges, not to condone our sin but to bring us home, to reconcile us to our own true selves and to God.
Dear friends, by this simple three-step progression of fraternal or communal correction, God keeps calling us to a life of reconciliation before condemnation; God asks us to be responsible for one another by caring for those who have gone astray; God summons us to build community, the Body of Christ, by rebuking the proud and delusional at the center, and by shepherding those who are hurting at the edges.
We can begin to learn to love better. We can start with the friend we hate, the person who has wronged us, the wicked one who threatens to destroy our community. We can start by asserting truth to transgressor, speaking truth to the one with the heart of stone.