(Fr. deLadurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia. This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)
Justice, if it is to be virtuous (and not mere capriciousness), is always rooted in truth: the truth of one’s words and deeds merits either reward or punishment.
This week’s Gospel passage reveals justice (and therefore truth) in action. Jesus instructs His followers on how they should deal with sinners: first, try to win them over informally, one on one. If that does not succeed, “take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If that fails, “tell the church.” Finally, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”
At first sight, these words sound harsh, even hopeless — throw the sinner out! Excommunicate him! A deeper reading, however, leads us to see that what Jesus prescribes corresponds to the truth of the sinner’s life and thus manifests authentic justice. The pernicious pattern of sin is all too familiar to us. How often, when we fall, do we seek to cover it up, or to evade responsibility for our wrong actions? We deny, assign blame elsewhere and refuse to accept fraternal correction. It becomes easier to harden our hearts instead of humbly admitting our need for conversion. The truth is that the unrepentant sinner lives a contradiction: called to communion with God, the sinner, by his or her own free will, chooses to live outside that communion, turning away from the offer of divine grace and salvation. In the worst case, if the sinner persists in his or her obduracy, the only just response is to recognize the truth of the situation: the sinner has separated himself from the Body of Christ, the Church — thus, “Treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”
Does this mean there is no hope of forgiveness? Or that we are justified in abandoning such persons (“Well, they made their bed, now they have to lie in it”)? Not at all! To His words about dealing with sinners, Jesus adds the reminder that “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” While this is a general statement about prayer, it can also be seen in its context as an urgent invitation to pray for the conversion of sinners. Even the most obstinate sinner can be touched by God’s grace if he or she is the object of someone’s prayer.
God never forces anyone to believe. Faith and a morally upright life cannot be the result of coercion. However, if someone chooses to reject the will of the Lord, we must recognize the sad truth: such an individual is not living in a vital communion of charity with God or with His Church. It then becomes the task of the Church and of all Christ’s disciples to pray for such persons, that they may be moved to repentance and to the embrace once again of the only truth that sets us free: namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His way of life. Then we may hope that all such repentant sinners (including ourselves) will receive our just reward.