Saturday, September 6, 2014

Homily for 23d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
23d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 7, 2014
Matt 18: 15-20
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matt 18: 15).

The gospels of the last 2 Sundays have been concerned with the foundations of Christ’s Church:  with its faith in Jesus the Christ; with its authority, especially as exercised by Peter; with its following a Christ who was crucified.

Today, too, the gospel is concerned with the Church:  with the Church calling us to conversion, with the Church reconciling us to God and to others, with the Church interceding with God.

On 1st reading, it may appear that Jesus’ words address private faults of concern to 2 individuals:  he dumps his dirty clothes on the floor and won’t put them into the hamper; she’s a nag; he wants to read all my e-mail; she takes forever to get ready to go out; I love my boyfriend, but he hates my cat (that one was in “Dear Abby” on Friday).

But on closer reading, we see that Jesus is concerned about more public matters, offenses that affect the community.  (One of the Greek words for community is ekklesia, which is in our text, translated as “church.”)  Altho many people take private issues of the sort to which I’ve already alluded to Abby or Judge Judy, we can’t really imagine that Jesus means they should be brought to community authority—“2 or 3 witnesses” (18:16) or “the church” (18:17).  So Jesus is speaking of bigger issues.

What sorts of issues might come under the rubric “sins against you” (the Greek text uses the singular form of you, which in older English we’d render as “thee” or “thou”), and still be issues of general concern?

We might imagine fraud or theft of some kind; St. Paul seems to allude to that in 1 Cor 6.  We might imagine gossip or slander harmful to someone’s reputation.  Listen to Pope Francis at his general audience on Aug. 27:

"Sometimes, in fact, our parishes, which are called to be places of sharing and communion, are sadly marked by envy, jealousy, resentment." "This is human, but it is not Christian!" the Pope said.
"How much gossip (goes on) in parishes," the Pope lamented. "We mustn't do it! I won't tell you to cut off your tongue. No. Not that. But do ask the Lord for the grace to not do it, all right?"

The refusal to gossip, in fact, is such an outstanding Christian virtue, it should make a person a saint overnight, the Pope said. He recalled the sterling reputation of an elderly woman who used to work in a parish in … Buenos Aires. People remembered her as someone who "'never talked badly of others, never gossiped, was always with a smile.' A woman like that can be canonized tomorrow! This is beautiful, this is a great example," he said to applause.
Conflict arises when people judge others; look only at others' defects, not their gifts; give more weight to differences than common ground; make themselves the top priority; and follow their own ambitions and points of view, he added. "In a Christian community, division is one of the gravest of sins because it turns it into a sign not of God's work, but of the devil, who, by definition, separates, ruins relationships and instills prejudice."[1]

We might imagine marital infidelity or other sexual immorality (see what Paul writes in 1 Cor 5).  Such sins are both personal and communal, damaging to individuals and to the community at large.  We might also imagine false teaching about faith or morals, altho in that instance we’ve already passed from “sins against you [singular]” to “you [plural].”

So Jesus teaches that those who sin against the community must be corrected, but with charity and with as little fuss as possible:  privately if possible; a little more publicly if necessary, with “2 or 3 witnesses.”  Witnesses to what?  Witnesses to the offensive behavior or false teaching; witnesses to the Church’s authentic faith and way of life.  E.g., various bishops say that they’ve spoken privately with certain politicians about their immoral and scandalous positions on certain public issues.  Our bishops have said that they would call out their fellow bishops if need be about how they address sexual abuses cases; whether they’re doing so privately, I don’t know, but I know of only one public instance involving an American bishop—Abp. Gomez’s sidelining of his L.A. predecessor, Cardinal Mahony.

Finally, Jesus would have the entire Church challenge or confront the offender:  “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church” (18:17).  In 1st-century terms, “church” means the local congregation, such as the church at Jerusalem or Corinth or Ephesus.  And today we ought still to look to the local Church, in New York or Tokyo or Paris, as the case may be, before going to the universal Church—the Pope and his curia.

So the Church has authority to judge the faith and the behavior of her members and determine whether they’re genuinely Christian.  Jesus goes one:  “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:17).  I.e., if he won’t repent, then he is to be removed from the fellowship of the community in some manner.  Some bishops have forbidden certain individuals to receive Holy Communion because of their scandalous public opinions.  Priests who engage in partisan politics or actively push women’s ordination have been sanctioned in various ways.

Jesus reinforces the authority of the Church by adding, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:18).  You’ll remember that those same words were addressed to Simon Peter individually 2 weeks ago (16:19).  Now they’re addressed to all the apostles, and by extension to the apostles’ successors.  The binding and loosing may refer to interpretations of Christ’s teachings, to Church laws, or to membership in the community.  Jesus hands to his Church a great share of his own authority.
“Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He calls them to conversion, and he welcomes their conversion.  So even if the Church must cast someone out of the community, we don’t consign them to hell!  We continue to invite them to return to the faith and the practice of the community, to treat them with the dignity due to every person, and to pray for them—which Jesus confirms with his words at the end of today’s gospel (18:19) even as he affirms his presence in the community (18:20).  The Church’s intercessory role for all of humanity is a vital part of her mission, of her exercising Jesus’ mission of reconciling everyone with God.

Note the repetition of “2 or 3” in this reference to prayer.  It hearkens back to the “2 or 3 witnesses” of someone’s fault.  As the first 2 or 3 testify to an individual about his failing, here 2 or 3 testify to God about their concern.

There’s one more thing to be said.  “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (18:15).  Whether we’re dealing with religious community, the family, the parish, or even our internal beliefs, are we humble enuf to listen to our brother or sister or relative or pastor or the Church’s authoritative teaching and to change our own behavior or our own opinions?  The call to conversion applies to me too!

                [1] Carol Glatz, “Pope: Being envious, mean-spirited may be human, but it's not Christian,” CNS Aug. 27, 2014.

No comments: