Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 4, 2005
Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
1) “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel, “there will I be in their midst.” This is an incredible promise given to us by Jesus, but we have to understand first what it means and why he said it.
a. It does not mean — as Christians sometimes think — that whenever two or more Christians are in the same place doing anything whatever that Jesus is automatically there. Jesus promises to be there, rather, when they are gathered “in his name,” the only name under heaven and earth by which man can be saved (Acts 4:2). The very name of Jesus means “Savior,” for, as the Archangel Gabriel told St. Joseph, Jesus “would save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Therefore to gather in Jesus’ name means to gather in his person seeking what Jesus seeks, which is our salvation and holiness.
b. But there’s a second part to this marvelous declaration of Jesus: he promises to be with us when we gather TOGETHER in his name. Many times people today say that it’s sufficient to have a so-called “private” relationship with Jesus. They pray on their own and say that’s an adequate substitution for coming to Mass, or for praying the rosary as a couple or a family, or for getting together with others for Bible studies or other forms of communal prayer. While it’s true that we can and should pray on our own, it’s also very clear that Jesus very much wanted us to come together to pray. When his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he taught them to pray “Our Father,” not “My Father, who art in heaven,” for the obvious reason that he wanted us to pray it with others. Even when we pray the “Our Father” alone, he wants us to remember others, which is why he taught us to pray, “Give US this day OUR daily bread, forgive us OUR trespasses, as WE forgive…,” etc. Jesus came down from heaven to earth to found a FAMILY, and he wants us to live and to pray as a loving family. He sent his disciples out to proclaim the Gospel not one-by-one, but two-by-two, so that they would be able to learn how to grow in this sense of family, in this sense of communion, in this path of love.
2) These two preliminary thoughts are the proper context to understand what Jesus says at the beginning of today’s Gospel about what the saints have always called “fraternal correction.” Whenever we gather together with others in the name of the One who saves us from our sins, as a family whose members deeply love each other, then it’s obvious that we should always desire lovingly to help the other members of the family to overcome their sins. That’s what Jesus calls us to do when he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” At each step, Jesus tells us to gather with a sinning brother or sister in his name — first the just the two of us, second with a few other members, and third with the Church — and try to help that sibling realize and begin to overcome his or her sin.
3) This is a very challenging teaching for two reasons:
a. First, we are living in a culture that thinks the greatest value is to be “nice.” Many believe that we really should never correct anyone else, because that would make us seem “judgmental” or “harsh.” They say it’s important to be civil, to agree to disagree, to live and let live, to mind our business, and to be tolerant. But this mentality comes from a lack of courage, a lack of seriousness about what sin really does, and a lack of love. If we really love a person, we’ll have the guts and the love to intervene, because we know that sin kills those who sin and does immeasurable harm to others. When we look at Jesus’ example in the Gospel, we see that, even though he was “kind and merciful” (Ex 34:6; Ps 103:8; Ps 145:8 ) and “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29), he was certainly not “nice” and “tolerant” as the world uses these terms today. Ask the money changers in the temple, whose tables he overturned and whom he whipped out of the temple (Jn 2:15). Ask the Scribes and the Pharisees, whom he called “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “fools,” “whitewashed sepulchers,” and a “brood of vipers” (Mt 23:27,33); Ask St. Peter, whom the Lord last week called “Satan” and told him to get behind him (Mt 16:23). None of these actions were “civil” or “nice.” Jesus, however, had came to save the money changers, the Scribes and the Pharisees, and Peter; and to do that, he had to first let them know that they were veering from the Gospel, veering from love, veering from Him. In the same way, we have to have the courage to risk being considered uncivil or no longer nice if a brother or sister needs our help. What if we don’t? Can’t we just wait until someone else does it? God is clear to the prophet Ezekiel, as we read in the first reading: “If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he [the wicked man] shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, 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.” In other words, giving fraternal correction to a brother or sister who needs it is not an optional thing we may or may not do depending upon whether we feel like it; rather it is an obligation, a mission God gives us — and our salvation and others’ salvation depend on it.
b. The second reason why Jesus’ teaching on fraternal correction is challenging today is because some who misunderstand what it really means have given it a bad name. They look at this teaching as a license for ripping other people apart. You know the type of people I’m talking about: the chronic complainers, the incessant naggers, those who really can’t say anything nice about others, but who use the faith as a weapon to tear others down in order to try to build themselves up. To these people Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Mt 7:3-5). Too often in life, the clearest sign that a person is a mess inside is when he or she starts criticizing everyone else; one way we try to forget about our own problems is by focusing on everyone else’s problems. But Jesus says to all of us who have fallen into this trap: first we must take the logs out of our own eyes so that we can see clearly to help others take the specks out of theirs. Notice that Jesus does not say, “Don’t give fraternal correction to others, don’t help them remove whatever is blinding them.” But he wants us to be doing so exclusively out of love, which is why we have to notice our own failings and be working on them first. It’s when we start to see ourselves clearly that we can give effective fraternal correction, not as a hypocrite who doesn’t practice what he preaches, but as a humble fellow sinner trying to help a brother or a sister do better, uniting with him in the name of the Lord to battle sin together. Therefore, the call of Jesus to fraternal correction is not a divine mandate for chronic complainers or naggers; rather it is first and foremost a call to personal conversion, a summons to recognize our need for the Divine Physician’s help; then it’s a mission to bring the healing message of Jesus and conversion to others who need his help just as much as we do.
4) Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The Lord is calling us to be his instrument to help our husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, boss, employee, priest or nun, a teacher a pupil — anyone whose conduct is clearly not what the Lord wants it to be. If we know of someone living in a sinful relationship, heterosexual and homosexual, the Lord wants us to be his voice calling them, gently and lovingly, to conversion. If someone is addicted to drugs, or booze, the Lord wants us to intervene. If someone is missing Mass on Sundays, the Lord is calling us to act. If he or she is lying, or cheating, or stealing, or cursing, or setting bad example, or gossiping, the Lord is counting on us, like he counted on Ezekiel, to speak to them about it and ask them to change. How do we do this? The particular means should vary from person to person, but there are a few general rules.
a. We should pray for the person and ask the Lord to help us see how best to communicate his truth to that person. The best way might be to approach with a sense of humor, or to write a letter. It might be to encourage the person to emphasize the opposing virtue to his or her vice. But prayer must come first, to make sure that we try to see the situation as God sees it, and the other person as God does. Prayer will also help us to become sure that we’re making the correction about something that the Lord wants rather than merely something that pleases us.
b. The second general rule the saints propose to us is to make some small sacrifices for the person, like fasting. As Jesus teaches us in the Gospel, some demons are cast out “only by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21; Mk 9:29). Sacrificing for the other person also helps to do everything we’re doing out of true love for the other person.
c. Third, we act at a time and in a manner that we deem most appropriate. Sometimes the person will respond humbly and well; at other times the person will be defensive. We should be conscious of our tone and try to make the correction as meekly and lovingly as we can, so that the other person realizes that our goal is not to make a point or to win an argument but to win a brother or sister. The point is not that one be right and the other wrong, but that both win by being brought into greater loving communion with Jesus. That is why Jesus said that in making a fraternal correction, we should go to our brother or sister in private and make the correction. This way it stays between the two of us. Too many people, today, however, delight in spreading others’ faults around through gossip and other means. The media and the talk shows have practically made a profession out of it. It is not to be this way with Jesus’ disciples. Humbly we should go one-on-one. If it doesn’t work in private, then the Lord tells us to try it with a couple of other people the person trusts and who can be trusted to keep things in private. Hopefully the added witness and love will be enough to convince the person to correct his or her behavior and, if necessary, seek help. This is what happens, of course, with interventions done to help alcoholics and drug users. But if the person persists in wrongdoing, we should go to the Church, to those who can join in prayer, and if the particular offense warrants it, to the hierarchy which can lovingly give the person an appropriate ecclesiastical admonition to warn of the eternal danger he or she is risking. The Church does this whenever she lovingly tells people clearly what is sinful conduct. Many would wish the Church would remain silent on these issues, but the Church cannot, because she does not have the mission to be considered “nice,” but to carry out Christ’s love in the world, and — like any parent here would be able to recognize — the Church’s maternal love sometimes have to be “tough love,” correcting the behavior of those who might not see the error of their ways. Each member of the Church is called to give the same love when others need it.
5) The flip-side of this teaching on fraternal correction, of course, is that when someone comes to us with a Christian correction, we should be grateful, even if at first we think the person is off the mark. It shows us that that person cares enough about us to try to help us become better. We all need help along the way. We all need people to help us. These are our real friends, the ones who love us so much that they’ll risk their friendship with us to try to give us the help we need. Our real friends are not those who flatter us, or who continue to “enable” us to do things we know we shouldn’t do, but those who tell us, in love, that we’re heading down the wrong track. We should see Jesus in them, patiently forming us into the person he calls us to be.
6) “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.” We have gathered together here at Mass in Jesus’ name to seek true communion with each other and with Jesus — a communion destined for heaven, but one that sin tries to destroy. The Lord Jesus, the Savior, comes to strengthen us in the battle against sin, both in our own hearts and in the lives around us. To accomplish this task, Jesus not only remains “in our midst,” but enters inside of us, so that he might continue his healing work within us. As we prepare to receive him and to take him and his saving words to others, we ask for his help to be courageous in making and receiving fraternal correction, so that one day all of us may be reunited in that eternal kingdom where communion with God and with each other will know no end.