Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 7, 2014
Ezek 33:7-9, Ps 95, Rom 13:8-10, Mt 18:15-20
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The text that guided the homily was:
What it means to gather in Jesus’ name
“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.
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.
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.
Loving others enough to correct them when they’re lost
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 in today’s Gospel. Pope Francis spent his Angelus this morning in St. Peter’s Square talking about the importance of what Jesus teaches us. “Jesus teaches us that if my brother sins against me, I have to respond with charity towards him and, first of all, talk to him personally, explaining that what he has said or done is not good. And if the brother does not listen to me? Jesus suggests a progressive intervention: first, go back with two or three other people to make him more aware of the mistake he has made. If, despite this, he does not accept the exhortation, I need to tell the community. And if he won’t even listen to the community, I need to make him feel the fracture and detachment that he himself has caused, by failing in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith.” Then Pope Francis tells us the point of this progressive intervention: “The stages of this route show the effort the Lord asks of his community to accompany those who make mistakes, so they are not lost.” Jesus came so that we might not perish but have eternal life. He came to search out the Lost Sheep. And he’s confided to us this mission. Whenever a brother or sister is lost by sinning, whenever he or she is going off the deep end, Jesus tells us to gather with that brother or sister in his name and try to help that sibling realize and begin to overcome his or her sin.
This is what true Christian love is about. In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells us, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” And then St. Paul immediately lists the commandments and then says that all of them are descriptions of the command, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If we keep the commands, we love our neighbor; if we break them, we harm our neighbor. And when someone is harming us or others, that person is also harming himself or herself and out of love Jesus wants us to go call them back to the path of love. Fraternal correction, Pope Francis tells us, is “to help the person realize what he has done, and that with his sin, he has offended not just one, but all. But it also helps us – us – to free ourselves from anger or resentment which only hurt: that bitterness of the heart that brings anger and resentment, and that lead us to insult and attack.”
Jesus’ teaching on fraternal correction is a very challenging teaching for two reasons. 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 “offensive” 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 care for 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. Last week, we see he called Peter “Satan” and reproved him for thinking not as God does but as human beings do. He corrected James and John when they were ambitiously seeking the choicest seats in his Messianic administration, telling them that in order to be great they needed to become the servants, rather than the overseers, of all, all the way to the point of drinking his chalice of suffering. He regularly corrected the apostles, for example when they were jealous of others’ casting out demons in his name. He fiercely corrected the moneychangers in the temple, whose tables he overturned and whom he whipped out of the temple (Jn 2:15), for turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves. And more than anyone else, he often corrected the Scribes and the Pharisees, whom he called “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “fools,” “whitewashed sepulchers,” and a “brood of vipers” (Mt 23:27,33). None of these actions was “civil” or “nice.” Jesus, however, had came to save the money changers, the Scribes and the Pharisees, and Peter and the apostles; 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.
When St. Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians, he uses two words right after the other that most us of consider synonyms. He says that when we’re living according to the Holy Spirit we are both “kind” and “good,” which are translations of the Greek words chrestotes and agathosune. Chrestotes means a goodness that is always seeking to help positively, but agathosune includes rebuke and discipline. Jesus showed chrestotes or kindness when he cared for the sinning woman who anointed his feet; he showed agathosune when he cleansed the Temple. Agathosune is what the Holy Spirit gives us to help us to make fraternal corrections.
What if we don’t correct our brother or sister when they’re erring? 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. God calls Ezekiel a “watchman” for the house of Israel, someone who was tasked with keeping an eye out to protect the sheep from thieves or from wolves. We’re all called to be such watchmen. Today a better term would be a “lifeguard.” We’re called to be lifeguards for the human race. When we see others swimming in shark infested waters with those who are drawing them into evil, when we see others drowning in their own bad habits, God wants us to spring to action. To do so is to try to save lives, to be a hero, even if, at first, the person might not want to be helped.
Fraternal Correction isn’t a license to tear people down, but a means to build them up
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. We’ve all suffered from people who are chronic complainers, incessant naggers, 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; a common, unconscious psychological diversion is to 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 that 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, “If you’ve got your own issues, 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.
Pope Francis pondered this truth during this Angelus meditation earlier today. He said, “In fact, before God we are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Everyone! In fact, Jesus told us not to judge. Fraternal correction is a matter of love and communion that must prevail in the Christian community, it is a reciprocal service that we can and must render for one another. And it is possible and effective only if everyone is a sinner and in need of forgiveness of the Lord. The same conscience that makes me recognize the mistake of the other, beforehand reminds me that I have erred and wronged so many times.” Therefore, the call of Jesus to fraternal correction is not a divine commission for chronic complainers or naggers to go tear others down; 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.
How to make a fraternal correction well
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, pastor, priest or religious sister or brother, 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, the Lord wants us, like John the Baptist before Herod, to be his voice calling them, gently, lovingly, and firmly 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 to try to persuade them to think about the good of their soul. 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 in today’s first reading, 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.
First, we should pray for the person and ask the Lord to help us see how best to communicate his truth to him or her. The best way might be to approach with a sense of humor, or to write a letter if the other would be too defensive face-to-face. 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 will please us. In prayer we can also ask God to soften the other’s heart to receive his correction through us, so that, as we prayed in the Responsorial Psalm, if today the person hears God’s voice, his or her heart may not be hardened. As part of our prayerful discernment, it will also be wise for us to consult someone else, like a priest, a spiritual director, or someone discreet who might know the other well before we make it to get another perspective. This person may help us to find the appropriate way to make a correction or, if the person knows that the other is already working on the problem, to prevent our discouraging the person by correcting the person on the same fault that others have already mentioned.
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.
Third, we should act at a time and in a manner that is 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. We should seek to express it in the most effective way, directly, tenderly and clearly. We shouldn’t be vague. We shouldn’t get lost in generalizations, “Sometimes people use foul language.” We should be plain.
Pope Francis, in particular, encourages us to make fraternal corrections, to the extent possible, in a positive way, pointing out not so much what shouldn’t be done but rather what we can do better. We should indicate the positive and attractive value, showing the beauty of a life of virtue and wisdom, which can help them better understand the rejection of evils that endanger their life and harm others, liberate them from pessimism and negativity and fill them with hope.
Jesus tells us that in making a fraternal correction, we should go to our brother or sister in private and make the correction first. This way it stays between the two of us, and this is a very important point today. Too many people in our delight in spreading others’ faults around through gossip and other means. The media, the talk shows and especially the blogosphere have practically made a profession out of it. That’s not worthy of 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 and even when she excommunicates someone who won’t repent and reform, not so much as a punishment but as an admonition of the seriousness of one’s conduct, so that the person may know that by that behavior he is separating himself from God and his community. When Jesus says that we should treat someone as a “gentile or a tax collector,” he’s calling us to pray for them like we would pray for those who clearly are no longer living members of our community because they’re too addicted to sin. Many would wish the Church would remain silent on many issues rather than call people to conversion, but the Church cannot, because she does not have the mission to be considered “nice,” but to be “good” and 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 by God like he called Ezekiel to be a “watchman” of others and give this type of love to others when they need it.
Receiving fraternal correction well
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, and be grateful. I remain grateful decades later for fraternal corrections I’ve received. When I was in seminary, I used to get together with five or six other guys each night at the end of the day to wind down. I enjoyed it a lot. We had a lot of laughs. But one afternoon, one of my close friends came to my room and he proceeded to tell me point black, “Rog, listen. We love you, but when all of us come together, do you realize that you do half the talking? You have to let other guys speak and not feel the need to make commentary on everything everyone else is saying.” It was great advice. I hadn’t realized that that’s what I was doing. On another occasion in a large get together of about 25 priests, one of my friends was describing what his new book was about. At some point he said something about CS Lewis from his book that I recognized he had taken out of context. So I called attention to it, I thought nicely, just for the sake of accuracy. A couple of days later, a brother priest came to me and said, “Rog, you were right in your point about CS Lewis, but you were wrong to correct Phil in the middle of a get together. At a time in which we were all praising him for his great accomplishment, your comment embarrassed him and you should apologize.” He was right and I did. I remember a third correction when a spiritual director I had told me I needed a new pair of shoes, because my shoes were so worn that they would distract people. Again he was right. We all need friends like that who care about us enough, in little things and big, to help us.
Through Correction to Communion
“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. And as we have heard God’s voice speaking to us, may we not only not harden our hearts to this call about fraternal correction, but allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts so that we may become the heroic watchmen that he needs to help many others come to an eternal communion where, we pray, far more than two or three will be gathered in his name.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
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.
ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
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.
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.
“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.”