Previously in this Gospel, Jesus has spoken about authority in His Church. In Sunday’s reading, He shows us how it works.
Gospel (Read Mt 18:15-20)
Today, Jesus teaches His disciples about life in the Church He intends to build. Earlier (Mt 16), He established Peter as its head, giving him the “keys” to the kingdom. Now, He addresses various situations that will undoubtedly arise in His community of followers as they seek to live the new life of that kingdom.
“If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” In these few words, we see an approach to wrongdoing that is countercultural, then and now. He refers to His disciples as “brothers” to each other (as we are to Him). He knows the human heart well, of course, so He knows that brothers will sin against each other. What should Christians do when that happens? In one breath, Jesus tells us the appropriate action and its ultimate purpose. The sin is not to be ignored. After all, Jesus came to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. Sin is an outbreak of darkness in a kingdom of light; it cannot be glossed over. Sin is the antithesis of the happiness and health of the Gospel, so it must be addressed.
However, the point of the exposure of sin by one brother against another is not retribution, shame, or vindication. The purpose of the confrontation is reconciliation, a return of the sinner to the bosom of his family in faith: “… you have won over your brother.” This goal of brotherly love is precisely what makes this teaching so difficult. Why?
When we are wronged, our first impulse is not usually reconciliation. We want to keep a distance from the offender, to move away instead of toward him. From there, we want to tell everyone we know how wronged we have been. After that, there’s a desire to get even, to hurt in the same way we’ve been hurt. In a truly countercultural way, Jesus interrupts this normal response. He helps us understand that because we are a community of love, our biggest concern should be the return of our brother to the behavior of love. So, we are to confront “him alone” with the problem first, hoping to quietly restore him to familial fellowship. That teaches us to be as concerned for his welfare as we are for our own.
If that doesn’t work, we are to take “one or two others” along as witnesses that a wrong has certainly been committed. The great value of needing witnesses to a wrong is that it prevents us from making frivolous charges against a brother. There is still restraint here, still a desire to restore the brother to his Christian family. If the brother “refuses to listen,” then the whole matter must be referred to the larger expression of the Christian family, the Church. In all this, the goal is to win back the lost brother.
If he refuses to listen “even to the Church,” then he is to receive what, in all his refusals to “listen,” he really wants: to live outside of the covenant family of God. This is the final severe mercy extended to him. He will have the painful experience of a kind of exile from the happiness and health of the covenant community. Is this done out of hatred or a loss of hope? To suggest that would be an entirely illogical conclusion to what we have seen in these verses: a measured process that always aims at reconciliation. No, the exile from the presence of God’s community on earth is meant to make the sinner long for “home.” In addition, Jesus says that whatever the disciples, who are given His authority, bind or loose on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. Thus, the lost brother faces the very real possibility of an eternal separation from God’s presence, by his own choice of refusing to “listen” to those who speak for God. Strong medicine indeed!
When we read through the rest of the New Testament, we see this principle at work in the early Church. St. Paul routinely refers to it (read 1 Cor 5:1-5), and the Church, over time, has developed it into her teaching about excommunication (read CCC 1461-63). In our own day, as impatiently litigious as we are, it is good to be reminded that Jesus Himself laid out the Church’s slow and seemingly “soft” method of confronting brothers with their sins. Jesus’ primary interest was the sinner’s restoration, for the return of the lost sheep. That can be inconvenient for us, can’t it, when the world outside the Church clamors for immediate, swift justice or even vengeance. Do we have ears to hear?
Possible Response: Lord Jesus, please give me the courage I need to accept Your way of confronting sin in my brothers. I usually care more for justice than mercy.
First Reading (Read Eze 33:7-9)
Ezekiel was a prophet during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, an exile brought upon them by covenant unfaithfulness. God called him “son of man,” a title Jesus frequently used for Himself in the Gospels. The commission God gave Ezekiel was clear: “… dissuade the wicked from his way.” If he failed to speak, then he would incur the same guilt as the wicked. If, however, he warned the wicked, even without success, he would “save” himself. It is good for us to ponder the heavy burden of responsibility placed on God’s prophets.
Ezekiel’s job was not to cause repentance but to preach God’s Word, making repentance possible for the sinner. In the Church today, our prophets are the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Part of their pastoral work is to warn us against wickedness, to speak out about it. Each of us has a choice whether to listen or not. Do we have ears to hear?
Possible Response: Heavenly Father, please give me ears to hear correction when I need it.
Psalm (Read Ps 95:1-2, 6-9)
We should not be surprised to find that today’s responsorial psalm has a warning in it: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” The psalmist reminds us of the need for humility as we understand ourselves to be God’s flock, sheep who need guidance. It is no coincidence that our bishops carry shepherd’s staffs, a symbol of their God-given responsibility to bind and to loose, to warn of wickedness, to feed the lambs. In both the Gospel and the first reading, the sinner’s refusal to listen ends badly. In the psalm, God speaks directly to us: “Harden not your hearts.” Refusal to listen to God (in our consciences or in His Voice today, the Church) leads to a heart of stone. Do we have ears to hear?
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to the other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 13:8-10)
St. Paul explains why the attempt to restore and be reconciled with a brother who has sinned is always the goal when fellowship has been broken: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” If a brother sins against us, he has stepped out of love. Our response to him must be governed by one truth: “Love does no evil to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”
If we are wronged, how foolish it would be to do wrong ourselves. Our desire for our brother should be the same as our desire for ourselves: to live the behavior of love and so be true children of our Father. Jesus shocked His followers by telling them to love even their enemies. How much more should we be willing to love a lost brother back into the fold of God’s love. Do we have ears to hear?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I need your grace to resist my first response to being wronged. It’s hard to love rather than stew in judgment.