Sunday Sermon for September 4, 2011, the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
In the first reading today we hear God tell Ezekiel something that we tend to see as completely unfair. He says that if He tells the Prophet to warn a man about his sinful ways and the Prophet fails to warn him, when the man dies in his sin the Prophet will be held responsible. However, if the Prophet warns the man and the man does not repent, the Prophet is not held responsible for the man’s death.
The second part of this makes perfect sense: how can the Prophet be held responsible when he had given the man a warning? However, it is the first part that tends to cause us all a bit of confusion and even consternation. Why should the Prophet be held responsible when the sinful man made his own choices to live in a way that he knew was wrong? Why would God not hold the man responsible for his own actions?
A careful reading demonstrates that the man will be held responsible for his actions, but the Prophet will be held responsible because of his disobedience to the directive given him by the Lord. We may be breathing a collective sigh of relief at this point being grateful that we have not been called to be prophets. However, before we breathe too freely, we must recall that due to our baptism and consequent incorporation into Jesus, we are each a Prophet, Priest and King.
It is true that most of us have not been called to be a prophet in the sense that Ezekiel and the other prophets of Scripture were called, but we are each called to bring the message of salvation to others. This includes the spiritual works of mercy wherein we must admonish the sinner. For most of us, this does not mean that we have to go up to perfect strangers and speak to them about repentance, but there are people in the lives of each of us for whom we bear some responsibility.
This is the point St. Paul makes in the second reading about our requirement to love our neighbor. He tells us that love never wrongs the neighbor, but the other side of that is that love always desires the good of the neighbor. If there are people who are close to us we must, out of love, seek what is truly the best in their regard. Sometimes we think that this means giving them what they want or telling them what they want to hear so as “not to offend” them. If they are doing wrong refuse to address the issue, we are choosing to offend God rather than take the risk of offending a human person. This is neither love for God nor love for neighbor.
In the Gospel our Lord makes this same point very clearly when He says that if your brother sins against you, go and tell him but keep the fault between the two of you. If he refuses to listen, bring a couple of witnesses and if he still refuses to listen, bring it to the Church. Implicit in our Lord’s directive is the underlying necessity of doing all of this in charity or love for neighbor. All too often what we do is fail to address the offending person but, rather, we tell everyone else and spread the gossip, bring harm to the other’s name, and risk falling into detraction.
When this happens we fail in charity and fall into sin ourselves. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the first offending act has a ripple effect in that one sin begets another. First we fail to correct the sinner which, as we see in the first reading, may be a sin on our part, then we sin again by spreading slander or gossip. Both of these acts are violations of charity. Charity is the opposite of sin because every sin violates charity. So, if we want to stop the sin in its tracks before it can have a ripple effect, then we need to address it in the most charitable manner and never heap sin upon sin.
In the society in which we live, it is truly necessary that we have the charity to help one another. It is also essential that we have the humility to accept the help of others. In a relativistic society it is too easy to fall and justify things because everyone else is doing it. If we are going to be true to our Christian calling, we need to point out to those we love the fact that we see them straying. We need to be willing to help pull them back on to the path of holiness and away from compromise with the world. This will not only save their souls, but it may save ours as well.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.