Scripture and the Liturgy

Christian Confrontation: 23rd Sunday of OT

I don’t like personal conflict.  I try to avoid it as much as possible.  Probably most Americans do.  I’m not sure what it’s like in other cultures, although I’ve heard of places where open social confrontation is more common.

This Sunday’s readings deal with situations in which Christians have a duty to confront one another.  They don’t make for comfortable reading in a culture that puts a high value on keeping the peace and minding one’s own business.

1. The First Reading is the great “Watchman” passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Reading 1 Ez 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD:
You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.
If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, “
and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death.
But if you warn the wicked,
trying to turn him from his way,
and he refuses to turn from his way,
he shall die for his guilt,
but you shall save yourself.

Now Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest, entrusted by virtue of his office with teaching the People of God the ways of the Lord and the distinction between virtue and vice, holiness and sin.

The moral sense of this Reading applies in the first place to those who are in an analogous situation to Ezekiel in the Church, namely, the members of the hierarchy: pope, bishops, priests.  One of the roles of the hierarchy is to warn the Church and the world of wickedness that leads to our death.  Mortal sin would certainly fit that category.

It is the responsibility of the bishop and the priests who assist him clearly to warn the Church—and the world, too, if it is listening—of sins which lead to death.  I can understand why this is not done more than it is—it is a very uncomfortable thing for a parish priest to speak clearly and openly about sins which are widespread and popular in the culture.  The parish priest, like all of us, would prefer to be liked by everyone.  It’s awkward to stand at the back of Church and shake hands with a whole bunch of people you have just strongly rebuked.  I’ve been in that situation during my Protestant pastor days, and it’s no fun.  One time, I had to preach on marriage and point out the fact that cohabitation—living together in a sexual relationship before being married—is a sin, and incompatible with a Christian view of marriage, love, and family.  People got up and stormed out of my church, which shook me up.  But was I wrong to be clear about what the Bible teaches?  The prophet Ezekiel would not think so. 

Some years ago, Pope Francis had this experience, too.  Asked to address a group of engaged couples in Italy, and knowing that cohabitation before marriage (fornication) has become the custom and habit rather than the exception in Italy and throughout the Western world, he nonetheless knew God was calling him to warn the young people about the dangers of unchastity before marriage:

I do not want to moralise, but I do want to say something that is not liked, something unpopular. Even the pope sometimes has to take risks on things to tell the truth. Love is in deeds, in how one communicates; love is very respectful of people. It does not use people, i.e. love is chaste. And you, young people, in this hedonistic world [of ours], in this world where only advertising, pleasure . . . the good life . . . [prevail], I tell you: be chaste! Be chaste!

“Even the Pope sometimes has to take risks on things to tell the truth.”  Here Pope Francis recognizes that the Papacy also is a position of a watchman on the walls, whose duty as the successor of Peter is to warn Christians and the world lovingly yet clearly of the dangers that destroy the soul. 

This weekend poses a good opportunity for us lay faithful to pray for courage on the part of the hierarchy.  We need leadership that is not afraid to speak out about the favorite sins of our age, which all seem to be offenses against matrimony: masturbation, pornography, cohabitation, divorce, homosexual practice, contraception, abortion.  These offenses are widely practiced and tolerated among Catholics worldwide, and frequently not even recognized as sins.  They need to be addressed clearly and publically.  In the West it doesn’t usually take courage to warn against lying, stealing, killing, offenses against the environment, racism, and economic injustice.  No one is openly for these things: if you condemn them, the media and culture will generally congratulate you and pat you on the back.  But every age and culture has its pet sins that it will not tolerate being criticized.  It’s safe to condemn the mafia in Nebraska, but it takes courage in Sicily.  Likewise, it’s safe to condemn racism in contemporary America, but it wasn’t in the Old South or in Nazi Germany.  And, it is not safe to condemn abortion or a host of offenses against marriage in the contemporary Church in the West.  Even the Pope feels he takes a risk to do so, as we see from the above address.  The Pope knows it’s easy to condemn the “unpopular” sins, that the culture also recognizes as wrong and thus provoke no negative reaction.  But to speak out on the popular sins is to risk one’s job, one’s reputation, one’s friendships.  My brother had his minivan tires slashed for putting a pro-life, pro-marriage bumper sticker on his car in Connecticut.  And they were slashed in such a way as to fail the tire suddenly while in use, while he was driving on the highway with his six kids ….  Providentially he discovered the sabotage before it was too late.  Welcome to modern America, where a bumper sticker saying “1 Man 1 Women 4 Life” will get you and your family killed in an “accident.”

And so it bears repeating that the First Reading does not simply apply to the hierarchy.  All of us were baptized into Christ’s threefold office of king, priest, and prophet.  Lay Catholics do have a prophetic role in our society.  We don’t “get off the hook.”  We do need to warn family members, coworkers, friends, about behaviors that are leading to their ultimate death.  Obviously this takes a great deal of love, tact, and prudence—but if we remain silent we are tacitly approving evil.

P. The Responsorial Psalm puts us the shoe on the other foot.  In the Responsorial Psalm, we don’t hear a call to rebuke the sinner, but to accept the rebuke when we are the sinner:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9

R. (8)If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

So the Psalm calls us to humility.  Others have their pet sins; we, too, often have ours.  When others confront us with our sin, let us not have a hard heart like Israel did in the wilderness.  That would lead us to “forty years of wandering” in a spiritual desert.

2. The Second Reading is another installment in our lectio continua through Romans.  Though not chosen to match the themes of the First and the Gospel, nonetheless when the readings are juxtaposed, we can see implications and relationships:

Reading 2 Rom 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery;
you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, “
and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this saying, namely,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

There are two implications of this passage in light of the Ezekiel passage.  First, we need to remember that sin is a lack of love.  Ultimately, the popular sins of our society, many of which tend to be sexual in nature, are failures of love, failures to act in others’ best interest and to treat them with their full dignity as persons.  Masturbation, pornography, cohabitation, divorce, homosexual practice, contraception, abortion are acts of non-love, even if we think we think, in the moment, that we are “loving” someone by committing or condoning one of these acts.  Love has an objective aspect.  It’s not just a subjective feeling.  You may really like someone, but if you mistakenly give them poison rather than medicine, your act is not objectively loving.  Society has completely lost sight of this fact.  Love is now confused with “niceness,” with complying with whatever a person wants.  The Catechism is quite clear on this, and in its treatment of offenses against the Ten Commandments, it explains why different sins are actually a failure of love. 

Secondly, a rebuke, when made with a correct intention, is also an act of love.  It is not loving to overlook the fact that people are in sin.  Of course, it is also quite possible to rebuke people out of arrogance and self-righteousness.  And, sometimes, we may have a right intention in offering a rebuke, and nonetheless be perceived as arrogant, which is painful.  Sometimes we want to avoid the risk of being perceived as self-righteous, so we avoid confronting others in love.  Sometimes our failure to rebuke is motivated by self-love.  We want to avoid the pain of possibly being rejected.  Truth and authenticity are sacrificed for the sake of social comfort.  If Pope Francis had shrunk from speaking clearly about chastity to young people in his address quoted above, he would have failed to love them, because love tells the truth and points people toward goodness and beauty, not merely pleasure and physical comfort.

G.  The Gospel Reading provides instructions about the proper way to confront others within the New Covenant community:

Gospel Mt 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.”

Jesus’ words are primarily addressed to the “disciples” (v. 1), which the Church has understood to mean the Twelve, who are the proto-hierarchy of the Church.  The guidelines in this passage are intended to inform their juridical and sacramental role, as those who will establish and enforce halakhah (the Jewish term for authoritative interpretation of the law) for the new covenant community, and will dispense the forgiveness of sin (see John 20:22-23).

When confronting sin within the Church, the watchwords are private and personal.  One begins by going to the person in private, and making a personal appeal.  The goal is reconciliation, not condemnation.

This principle applies to all life within the Church.  When offended, however, our tendency is first to go and tell all our friends and anyone else who will listen about how so-and-so did something outrageous to us.  This spreads the circle of the offense while making no progress toward reconciliation.  It also starts a cycle of gossip and escalating exaggeration.

If a personal approach does not resolve the issue, Jesus instructs us to bring along one or two others.  The Lord makes reference to Deuteronomy 19:15:

“A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.

The Lord’s citation of juridical instructions from the Old Covenant community may indicate that the primary intention of this passage is to set up the basics of a juridical process for the New Covenant community.  The principles our Lord expounds should form the basis of the Church’s internal law or “canon law.”

         If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church.

This would be a public ecclesiastical rebuke for grave sin.

If he refuses to listen even to the Church, treat him as you would a tax collector or sinner.

This teaches that the judgment of the Church is the final court of appeal on earth.  Treatment as “a tax collector or sinner” means a withdrawal of recognition of the person as a member of the New Covenant community, which later in Church history would come to be called “excommunication.”  The person is “outside of” (ex) the communion; hence, excommunication.

But Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10).  So one does not give up on the excommunicated member.  The excommunicated person is moved into the category of persons who need to be evangelized, who have not yet received the Gospel.  If they “won’t listen even to the Church,” they do not realize that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ that acts with Christ’s authority on earth, which is a central truth of the Gospel.  So they have not truly grasped the Gospel, and must be re-evangelized.

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.

Our comments about the halakhic significance of the terms “bind” and “loose” from two weeks ago (re: Matt 16:18 and context) are also appropriate here.  This authority to establish the correct interpretation of divine law (that is, halakhah), given personally to Peter, is now also conferred to the Twelve as a body.  The Catholic Church has understood this to mean that the Church speaks authoritatively either through the Peter (that is, his successor) or the Twelve (that is, the bishops united, i.e. an ecumenical council).

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.

This does not confer omnipotence to any group of Christians that agree together to pray about something, for we have all had the experience of communal prayer—perhaps for a sick member of our parish, for example—that was answered in the negative.

The juridical context and the address to the Twelve reminds us that the primary force of these words is the promise of divine assistance to the Apostles and their successors who will be responsible for establishing halakhah for the New Covenant community (the Church) and also for dealing pastorally for those who have difficulty accepting the halakhah, the teaching of the Church.  God will guide them through these difficulties if they seek his will in prayer.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them

Christ is present in his Church: this is the source of all her wisdom, love, and authority.  This gives Her the ability to speak the word of warning to individuals and society as a whole—but always with the intent that we may all learn to act in love (Rom 13:8).

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