Nova’s Ordo: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nova’s Ordo: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time September 4, 2011

Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that ‘every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
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.
Again, amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”

As Christians, are we really ready to take this Gospel passage to heart?  Some of us, perhaps many of us (including many who would not or cannot admit it to themselves) think we are.  It is far too easy to imagine ourselves as the stern but loving elder of the Church, going to reprove the wayward member of the congregation.    We can see ourselves, speaking more in love than in anger, gently urging the sinner to be reconciled with us and with the Church.   We are gracious, even magnanimous in our forgiveness, but we are firm:  the sinner must repent.  When our loving entreaties fail, we bring along our confreres, equally righteous, but equally sorrowful for the sinner we are confronting.  And, should all efforts at reconciliation fail, we can imagine ourselves strong enough to remove the sinner from our midst, treating him “as a Gentile or a tax collector”.  We would console ourselves with the belief that it was in the best interest of the Church and the sinner alike:  far better to be separated from the Church on earth with the hope of repentance than to be separated from God by the “great chasm” that separated Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:25).

But are we able to imagine ourselves on the receiving end?    Can we picture ourselves as the sinner—perhaps angry, perhaps confused, perhaps honestly believing we did nothing wrong—but a sinner nevertheless, guilty of an offense egregious enough that we are being confronted by our brethren, with the threat of expulsion lurking in the background unless we reform our ways.   I don’t think we can—or at least, I have a hard time seeing myself from that perspective.  Most of us are honest enough to admit that we are sinners, but we tell ourselves that our sins are little things that don’t really rise to this level, or we tell ourselves that our sins are between ourselves and God.   (Indeed, we think our sins are so minor that we will not even bring them to confession.)   Each of us, in our own way, has a great deal in common with the Pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray, proudly noting that we are “not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like that tax collector” (Luke 18:11).

But in reality the passage from small sins to great ones is easier than we would care to admit.   We may indeed be in need of fraternal correction.    So try to imagine yourself in this situation.  What would you want:  a chance to explain yourself? understanding? forbearance? forgiveness, even seventy times seven fold (Mt 18:22)?  Always hold that image, that feeling firmly in mind.  See yourself not standing in judgment, but as one judged and found guilty.  If we see ourselves in need of mercy, then we will find it easier to be merciful. As Jesus said,

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:38).

Be ready to admonish the sinner, but be equally ready to accept correction. Admit to yourself that you will need to be forgiven at least as often as you are called upon to forgive.   And both in giving and receiving, love one another, for “love is the fulfillment of the law.”

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  • Excellent reflection, David.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks Matt. I was struck by the incongruity of the second reading and the gospel, and was trying to see how they tied together.

  • If he refuses to listen even to the church,
    then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

    What leaps out at me is the above phrase, which sounds uncharacteristically condemnatory, given the fact that Jesus is now and then appreciative of Gentiles (the Canaanite woman, the Roman soldier), and he eats with sinners (who are, I believe, nonobservant Jews) and tax collectors.

    I don’t read Greek, but I am persuaded by various translations and commentaries that translating ekklesia as “church” in this context is misleading.

    The NAB (as is the case remarkably often) has an interesting footnote. (I have been told by several conservative Catholics that the NAB is heretical. Maybe that is why it appeals to me, but it doesn’t explain why it is authorized by the USCCB!)

    The church: the second of the only two instances of this word in the gospels; see note on Mt 16:18. Here it refers not to the entire church of Jesus, as in Mt 16:18, but to the local congregation. Treat him…a Gentile or a tax collector: just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so must the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refuses to repent even when convicted of his sin by the whole church. Such a one is to be set outside the fellowship of the community. The harsh language about Gentile and tax collector probably reflects a stage of the Matthean church when it was principally composed of Jewish Christians. That time had long since passed, but the principle of exclusion for such a sinner remained. Paul makes a similar demand for excommunication in 1 Cor 5:1–13.

    Congregation would seem to me to have been a better translation, and in fact Richmond Lattimore’s modern English translations has the following:

    And if he will not listen to them, tell it to the congregation. And if he will not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you as the Gentile and the tax collector.

    The Anchor Bible volume Matthew tells us in a note to Matthew 5:46:

    taxgatherers. The word is not used specifically of this class of men, but rather in the sense employed in the rabbinic writings—i.e., a class of men normally despised, of whatever occupation.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      One theologian I read (unfortunately I cannot remember who) pointed out the tension in Matthew in his use of the phrase “treat them as you would gentiles or tax collectors.” On the one hand, the clear implication is to put them outside the community. On the other hand, the Matthean account of Jesus has him *eating* with tax collectors and sinners, something that puts him strongly at odds with Jewish mores and rules for determining who is inside and who is outside the community. He argued that this was a call to devote particularly care and attention to fallen brethren, making clear to them that they are still loved and that they are welcome back in the community.

  • Are we ready to receive fraternal correction? What strikes me as key is trust in our communion with God and our commitment to fraternal solidarity. If we are high on ourselves and skeptical of the goodness in others we will resist. On the other hand if we cultivate humility we’ll see how God is working in this process for our good and the good of all.

    One thing we should not overlook is the connection with the first reading. In the first reading the correction begins with God who transmits his judgement through the watchman. The watchman is not called to make his own judgements, but carry out the will of God. Again in the responsorial psalm it is God’s voice that we listen to. If today you hear his voice, hearden not your hearts. In this regard if we should feel the need to correct others we should ask ourselves…What is the source of my desire to correct…is it personal injury or annoyance…or does it come from a true concern for the other in the way that God is concerned for this other?

    Perhaps the 2nd reading is a bridge to the Gospel in that it points to the the fact that the law is fulfilled in our love of one another. Thus whaterver correction may be in order revolves not only in breaking commandments but more deeply around a betrayal of Christian charity.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    “or does it come from a true concern for the other in the way that God is concerned for this other?”

    Very well said, thank you. I think a lot of us would like to be the voice of God, as we imagine it, but are less willing to be so when it really is God speaking. That may be why the prophets were so unwilling to take up their mantle.

    • I think a lot of us would like to be the voice of God, as we imagine it, but are less willing to be so when it really is God speaking. That may be why the prophets were so unwilling to take up their mantle.

      Perhaps the prophets can sense that they share the traits of others and stand accused also; which may rightfully serve to diminish their zeal. I might discern this quality as an authentic sign of God’s voice. To the extent that anyone serving up fraternal correction displays glee (smug pleasure or jubilation) or a lack of charity in any form, they betray the purpose and design of the ‘Voice’ they seek to convey.

      I suspect that those of us on the receiving end of fraternal correction most likely will fall short, at least at first. But to the extent that the one admonishing is truly charitable and free of all malice the operation has a greater chance of success. After all, isn’t this the essence of ‘the transforming power of love and pardon? (SFO Rule)’ Thus I place a greater responsibility on the one doing the admonishing.