Friday, 5 September 2008

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

When couples approach the parish to have their children baptised they generally have an initial interview with the priest. Very often this couple is not married, or at least not married in the Church and, consequently, not attending Mass on Sundays.

When verbalising their ‘non-practising’ relationship to the Church they often say, ‘We do not believe we have to go to Church to pray; we know so many people who go to Church on Sundays and then rip off their neighbour during the week. The Church is full of hypocrites!’

In earlier days I used to ask why they wanted their child to belong to a Church full of hypocrites but these days I just agree with them: Yes, the Catholic Church is, indeed, full of hypocrites – and liars and cheats and murderers, and every other kind of sinner.

The Catholic Church is like a hospital – full of sick people with all kinds of nasty diseases, and all struggling to try and get better. We would be silly to refuse to go to hospital ‘because it’s full of sick people!’ And besides, if you were the only healthy person in a hospital bed, or the only perfect person in the Church, you wouldn’t belong; you just wouldn’t feel at home.

When Jesus said: If your brother does something wrong, he wasn’t kidding or fantasizing about rare occurrences in the Church, he was speaking about daily manifestations of our innate tendency to get things wrong, to sin, and it would be na├»ve of us to think otherwise. Surely we have only to reflect on the inner movements of sinfulness in our own hearts, let alone our evil deeds, to see that this is so.

As one of the devil’s main weapons for creating chaos in human affairs is misunderstanding, we can appreciate the understanding Jesus offers us today as primarily a way of avoiding this pitfall.

Go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves.

Immediately we recoil, even as we recognise the wisdom of this command. We recoil for a number of reasons but primarily because, in our sad modern age of exaltation of feelings, particularly feelings of hurt, we resent advice that bypasses our feelings to focus on some higher reality, in this case, our brother’s need.

‘But what about me?’ I can hear you say. ‘What about my feelings? My brother has hurt me!’

‘Yes, yes, but you’ll survive. The real worry is your brother. He has sinned and he needs to be rescued quickly. So deal with your hurt and go to your brother ..’

Oh, the wisdom of God! Just when we think we have a good excuse to surrender to our hurt and settle into the cosy, self-righteous role of ‘victimhood’ Jesus comes along and challenges us to get real, grow up and deal with the real issue – our brother’s need.

We say ‘It’s all about me!’ but the Lord says ‘It’s all about your brother!'

Of course, there are other personal benefits to be derived from following the Lord’s command. Apart from our childish self-absorption and our tendency to pay too much attention to our feelings, the Lord is asking us to develop the courage and maturity to face our brother. This is not an easy task; it is actually one of the most difficult things in life to do well.

Following Jesus’ command, moreover, prevents us from ourselves falling into sin. How often is our first reaction to being hurt not to go and tell someone about it? We call it getting it ‘out of our system’ but what we are actually doing is it putting it ‘into the system’ – into the ‘grapevine’ – into the rumour mill, into the public forum. And how often, after some time has passed, have we not discovered our brother to be innocent of all charges, and that we have now become the guilty ones because we blackened his name?

Going to our brother is therefore our first step. It protects his right to a good name and it shows him we care for him. He is not stupid; he knows how difficult it is to go and face the one who has hurt you. The very act of going to him is a compliment and a declaration of respect for him and can lead to the growth of real friendship with him.
When a brother sins against us he ‘exposes’ himself and shows us his weakness; he has made a mistake and may realise he has made himself vulnerable. Our gentleness, our respect for him, shown by approaching him in love, will generally not soon be forgotten. In this way healing the hurt on both sides is made much easier; even good can come from it.

We go to our brother not to show him our hurt but to show him his sin. This is why fraternal correction is such a great spiritual work of mercy; helping people to see.

At times the sinner does not even know he has sinned. This may reduce his subjective guilt, or even annul it altogether, but it does not release us of the responsibility to teach the ignorant and correct the sinner. When Jesus said to go to your brother he was not suggesting this was just a nice thing to do. No! It is an obligation directed to our brother’s welfare and, perhaps, his eternal salvation. What’s more, it’s not connected to whether or not we will have success; it remains an obligation even if we know we will fail.

If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin, but you yourself will have saved your life (Ezekiel – First Reading).

The gospel makes no concessions at all to our hurt or to the apology we now think we are owed. The gospel quickly points out that it is we, incredibly, who now ‘owe’ our brother. What a turnaround to our human way of thinking!

One could go so far as to say that if your brother does something wrong, we are being offered a gift, a marvellous opportunity to confront our fear, apathy, desire for revenge, timidity, self-love, pride, vengefulness, immaturity, lack of charity and impatience. It gives us also an opportunity to suffer something for the hurt we have done others and learn to look beyond ourselves.

Lately, the readings have been speaking of the difference between God’s way of thinking and man’s way of thinking. The gospel does to us today what God is asking us to do to the sinner. The Word of God is coming to us very powerfully and privately, having it out with us alone as we sit in the pew today, just the Word and us, between our two selves, showing us a whole nasty cluster of evils we commit by not going to our brother. Let us listen to this loving Word and allow ourselves to be won back from our bad habits of gossip and slander. That would please God so much.

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