Zero Tolerance – Arnel Aquino, SJ

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

If China came to invade us and stayed a few years outlawing any citizens’s organizations, imagine how many religious and para-religious communities would be decimated, or even killed: like the Couples for Christ, the Iglesia ni Kristo, the charismatic communities, and who knows, maybe even Catholic parishes. That was what happened to Israel after the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The Zealots got wiped out, the Essenes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees—Jewish sects we read from the Gospels. The Pharisees, however, got reorganized, though very slowly. And, thankfully, on the other side of the fence, the early Christians, too! —though under the radar, because Christianity remained forbidden. This is the context from which Matthew’s Gospel was written: Judaism and Christianity rising painfully from the ashes, disorganized, reeling from the mayhem, mourning the loss of loved ones, incredulous over the destruction of the Temple, which was so complete that it was written, there was “no stone left upon another.”

Well, in a recouping community, you need protocols! Very much like what’s happening in many dioceses and religious congregations today the world over. We’re still staggering from the sexual abuse crisis, you know. So, bishops, superiors, their councils are still busy with lawyers. Lawyers give us legal advice, especially on setting up protocols governing clerical misbehavior. What we read from Matthew today really sounds like a protocol, doesn’t it? “When someone in the community wrongs you, talk to him. If he hears none of it, take one or two witnesses with you, then do it again, talk to him. If he hears none of it, elevate the matter to the elders and let them talk to him. If he still hears none of it, well, he’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t really want to be one of you anymore. So, treat him that way.”

But Fr Arnel, did this protocol really come from Jesus? The Gospel says, “if he refuses to listen, tell the church.” But there was no “Christian church” to speak of while Jesus was still with them. Good question. It’s possible that today’s reading about admonishing an errant member was composed by the Matthean community and then placed in the mouth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. But isn’t this manipulative? To make something sound like Jesus’s rule when it really wasn’t? Well, if the elders really conceived of this protocol, you and I can trust that the original Apostle who first taught these elders—he knew Jesus well enough to know the Lord’s mind about the matter. And when it was time for the elders to take over the Christian community, we can trust that they came up with a protocol faithful to the mind of Jesus. Jesus was very sensitive to how the religious authors ran their sects: the Pharisees, Saducees, Sanhedrin, etc. He knew very well how they could be quite unforgiving of offenders, and harsh with punishments. Jesus himself eventually fell victim to this, in fact. “Well, this ain’t gonna happen to us, my friends,” we could almost hear Jesus say. “In our group, when someone gets offensive, we’ll try our best to turn him around; give him several chances. We’ll start with friendship. If that doesn’t turn work, then, we’ll go official on him. If that doesn’t work, well then, maybe he really wants out. But we’ll turn someone away only when we’ve tried our best to keep him.” And didn’t we see this clearly in Jesus’ ministry of eating and drinking and forgiving sinners? Unlike the religious leaders, Jesus was no believer in zero-tolerance.

Do you believe in zero-tolerance, sisters and brothers? This is my opinion, and I could be wrong. Zero-tolerance is just a press release. Look at many countries. Zero-tolerance for enemies! But plenty tolerance for cronies! In our country alone, if someone doesn’t get away with murder, he gets away richer than even he has ever imagined! But, see, this is really everywhere: governments, schools, armies, churches, and even religious communities. Let’s face it, sisters and brothers. The “zero” in zero-tolerance often depends on how significant an “other” you are to the leaders, doesn’t it? The other side of the same coin is that many leaders take it for granted that zero-tolerance doesn’t apply to them, don’t they? Even when they break the same rule. Many times, sisters and brothers, zero-tolerance isn’t really so much a protocol, as it is a hypocrisy. If there was one odor that Jesus’ nose was trained to sniff, it was the stench of hypocrisy.

You and I believe with all our hearts that Jesus of Nazareth is the fullest revelation of who God is. We know who God is and what God is like through everything that Jesus said and did. Therefore, we should be able to see that zero-tolerance was never really godly. Jesus’s tolerance for sinners was never zero. And this is good news to us, sisters and brothers! It’s good news that our God and Savior knows us only too well. We’re always given another chance, and another, and another, and another….

*image from the Internet

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