Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year. Ez 33:7-9; Ps 95:1-2,6-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
The principal theme of today's readings is fraternal correction, in other words, confronting those doing evil and encouraging them to repent. Now fraternal correction is not easy, but it has been made even more difficult in society today by three additional challenges. First, Jesus says elsewhere, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37; Mt 7:1) and, because fraternal correction involves judging actions, some Christians think that Jesus has ordered us never to confront wrong-doers. Second, Christians who sin, which is all of us, may be reluctant to confront other sinners, either because of internal discomfort or out of fear of being labeled a hypocrite. Third, in many societies which are trying to make religion a purely private matter, or even trying to eradicate Christianity entirely, confronting others often provokes hostility and may even put one's life at risk. So fraternal correction is understandably unpopular.
So today's readings are an important reminder to us that fraternal correction is an obligation of the Christian life - one of the spiritual works of mercy. When Jesus says, “Do not judge,” he cannot be saying, “Do not judge actions,” because in today's Gospel Jesus also says “If your brother sins against you ...” Now to judge that someone has sinned against us means that we have to be able to judge that an action is sinful. Furthermore, when Jesus says, “Do not judge,” he cannot be saying, “Never correct anyone,” because Jesus also says, “Go and tell him [your brother] his fault.” So we have both to judge actions and to confront sinners. Today's first reading teaches the same lesson. When Ezekiel is told that he is a watchman for the house of Israel, he is also told that if he fails to warn a wicked person to repent as God has told him, then God will hold the prophet responsible for the death of the wicked person. In other words, there may be certain circumstances where, if we fail to confront an sinner, we might ourselves be committing a grave sin. What we cannot do, however, is to 'pass sentence' on a person's soul. Many people who do evil may have internal struggles, torments or incapacities that mitigate their guilt; conversely, some people leading apparently blameless lives may have frozen hearts, empty of divine love. So we cannot know the internal state of a person's soul, except by some miracle, and we cannot 'judge' another in the sense of passing sentence on that person. We can and we must, however, judge certain actions as being evil and, at times, confront sinners.
How then do we confront others about their sins? Well, it certainly helps if we have confronted ourselves first. Jesus tells us elsewhere, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.” (Luke 6:42) But an element of caution is needed here; fraternal correction is not to be done only by those who have never sinned, for if only those who have never sinned correct their brothers and sisters, then fraternal correction would never happen. It also helps to be clear about forgiveness. Jesus tells to forgive 'seventy-seven times', an exaggerated way of saying that there must be no limit to how often we forgive someone who sins against us. The hardest aspect of fraternal correction is knowing when to speak and when to be silent, for we are not always obliged to speak on every occasion when someone sins against us or against some third party. In difficult cases, much prayer will be needed for guidance. Notice also in today's Gospel how carefully Jesus says that we should confront a serious sinner: first, he tells us to talk to the person directly, in private; then, with one or two witness; then, to the church and, finally, to excommunicate the offender. Therefore, the utmost courtesy and prudence is needed, motivated by love.
So knowing when and how to speak to sinners requires careful discernment. There are, however, two things we must never do. First, we must never condone evil - in other words, to indicate consent or approval for an evil action. In fact, simply refusing to condone evil is often a very powerful witness that something is wrong. Second, we must not be afraid - even at the risk of harm to ourselves. Indeed, fraternal correction has frequently been the occasion for martyrdom. In my country, the Catholic Church was martyred in the sixteenth century, falling from a position of the highest privilege in the land to becoming the scum of the earth, her priests exiled, her property and educational institutions stolen, a parody erected in her place and faithful souls oppressed, ruined or killed. Why? Because, while members of the Church were not without personal sin (as is true at every stage of Christian history), the Church could not and would not condone a king's desire to abandon his wife to marry another woman.
Inspired by such witnesses, may God help us to see fraternal correction as a work of mercy. May he also give us wisdom and courage in confronting sinners, motivated by the desire for the salvation of all.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 7th September 2008
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