Homily for the
in Ordinary Time
Sept. 4, 2011
Matt 18: 15-20
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matt 18: 15).
Matthew’s 18th chapter, composed some 5 decades after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, deals with some practical matters of church life.
The passage immediately preceding our gospel reading this evening is the parable of the lost sheep (18:10-14), which instructs the shepherds of God’s flock to go looking for those who stray and to restore them to the safety of the flock and its shepherds. It also confirms the identity between the shepherds and heaven by comparing the shepherd’s joy when he recovers a lost sheep with the rejoicing in heaven over one sinner’s repentance.
Then we come to our passage on fraternal and ecclesiastical correction, i.e., to a passage that speaks of how someone actually goes about recovering a strayed sheep.
In recent years the Church has certainly seen the immense cost—in financial, moral, and pastoral terms—of our failures in fraternal correction. Those failures may have been due to ignorance, poor judgment, cowardice, misplaced priorities, or some other reason, but failure to protect and guide the flock of God there was.
Correction is one of the hardest tasks one can have. Every parent of a teenager knows that only too well. So does any English teacher who’s tried to straighten out kids’ grammar. How much greater the challenge of that moral correction of which Jesus speaks: “if your brother sins….”
The 1st challenge most of us face, whether parents or religious, is the acute awareness of our own shortcomings and sinfulness. Jesus, after all, also tells us to remove the 2x4 from our own eye before trying to get a splinter out of someone else’s (Matt 7:5). Parents talking to teens and tweens about alcohol or cigarettes may be challenged about their own habits; and perhaps challenged also about their youthful experimentations when counseling about sex and drugs. Religious superiors calling their confreres to renewed poverty, more prudence regarding chastity, more willing obedience may be challenged about their own habits, past and present. Humility, tact, and more are demanded of whoever would practice fraternal correction.
The 2d challenge is to discern when to correct. The Gospel speaks of “sin,” not of every annoying habit that a confrere or family member might have. What is serious enuf to warrant intervention, and at what level of intervention? Jesus speaks of one-to-one intervention, of small group intervention, and of action by the entire community. The one considering another’s fault would do well to weigh matters carefully and to pray over the situation.
A 3d concern is the seriousness of this issue. I alluded already to the scandal caused by the Church’s failures to correct straying sheep. In the 1st reading, Ezekiel compares the prophet to a watchman, a sentry (33:7-9). The sentry is responsible for protecting an encampment or a city against its enemies, and the results of his failure to be alert, his failure to challenge any encroachment, could be disastrous. His speaking out against all who approach, his providing of warning to all within, are a practical act of that love of which St. Paul speaks today: all the commandments are summed up in love of neighbor (Rom 13:8-10).
Correction of a brother or sister who’s doing something wrong is a practical act of love for that brother or sister. It may also be an act of love for the larger community, protecting it from physical or moral harm, from bad example, from false doctrine. Thus a family member has a serious responsibility to intervene if a parent, a son, a guest is using alcohol before driving; a superior or a brother has a responsibility to intervene when a confrere is flouting some aspect of the Rule; the Church hierarchy has a responsibility to intervene when someone publicly teaches false doctrine or advocates immoral behavior.
A 4th consideration is the purpose of such interventions. Note that Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (18:15). The aim of fraternal correction is the restoration of harmony, of good order, in the community, in the family; it’s the salvation of someone who’s wandered off the way of Jesus. Many a parent has, with sorrow, punished a child “for the child’s own good.” Sometimes parents have to resort to tough love because nothing else has worked, and sometimes religious superiors and bishops have to do so too. The burden on them all is that the motive must be love and not retaliation, not venting their frustration, not compelling the sinner to conform to some personal ideal of the parent or superior, not some other self-interested motive.
Finally, Jesus instructs the disciples to treat a recalcitrant sinner “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:19). The brother who refuses to listen to the Church is no longer to be considered a brother but an outsider, cut off from fellowship, from communion.
This, however, doesn’t mean to utterly abandon the sinner; for Jesus doesn’t abandon tax collectors and Gentiles. Even if we should have to separate a brother from the community because of some grievous fault; even if the Church should have to excommunicate someone because of his behavior or doctrine—we remain obliged to imitate Christ’s love for that person in our own behavior, to pray for him, to continue to offer the hope of redemption. This runs counter to our instincts, as Jesus’ treatment of tax collectors and sinners ran counter to accepted practice among his fellow Jews; we want to cut off completely people who disagree with us or who’ve grievously offended us, to give them up as hopeless, lost, irredeemable.
Not so Jesus. Even as he recognizes people as outsiders—cf. his treatment of the Syro-Phoenician woman in the gospel 3 weeks ago—he still invites them to come to faith, to repent, to join or rejoin the community. He never withholds forgiveness from those who are open to the grace that’s ever on offer. And forgiveness will be the subject of Jesus’ teaching as this 18th chapter of Matthew continues—ironically, or providentially, in our gospel reading next week: Sept. 11.