In our present society and culture, it seems that opinions are asked for only inasmuch as they are in agreement with the one asking the question. If the response is not what the questioner wants, or fits with what they’ve already planned or decided in advance, then the response is simply discounted, ignored, or even ridiculed. But in this setting, there is something even worse than an unfavourable response; it is unsolicited advice – direction or an observation that isn’t invited or requested – that points out errors, especially in behaviour or lifestyles. And this is something that the Roman Catholic Church is often publicly ridiculed and criticized for. But this is exactly what is expected of disciples of Christ.
In today’s passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself gives this command, this direction to his followers. Speaking to Jewish listeners, Jesus’ words are pretty clear; if you point out sin to a member of your own community, discreetly, and they won’t listen, but persist in that sin and you invite in additional members of the community and ultimately the Church, and they still persist, then they have put themselves outside that community of believers. Believers have not judged them – the Church has not ordered them out – but they have put themselves in a position where, like tax collectors and Gentiles, they are outside the dedicated community of believers. They have chosen, despite all evidence given to them by their faith community, to not live as a member of that community.
How often it is though, that people blame ‘the Church’ for putting them outside, as if the Church somehow manages to control how people make their own choices and actions and decisions. As humans in the 21st century of the developed west, we have refined the lack of responsibility for our own actions almost to an art form. We don’t want anyone interfering with our choices – but quite often when our choices bring negative consequences, we don’t want to take any responsibility for those choices. It’s not our fault – it’s ‘someone’ or’ everyone’ else’s.
It is crucial to understand in reading this passage though, that this is not a matter of the Church deciding how someone ends up outside the community. It is the individual who, through their choices, actions and persistence in both, puts themselves outside that relationship with the community, that harmony…it is the individual who moves themselves away from God, isolating themselves from the rest of the community of believers just as Jewish tax collectors would have in first century Palestine. And that is exactly why Jesus spent so much time with tax collectors – it wasn’t to condone what they were doing; it was to bring them back from their self-destructive lifestyles. Remember His words, ‘ it is not the well who need the doctor, but the sick.’ It was by pointing out sin that he invited them back.
It might be helpful here to have some kind of a definition of sin as a reference point in our own examination of conscience. St. Augustine defined personal sin as a deliberate, intentional, continual orienting of the self away from God – in other words, turning all of our desire in on ourselves. In a spirituality like this, there is no room for God; there is no room for compassion or love or charity. There is only a need to satisfy the self with more and more ‘things’ that ultimately can never satisfy the deepest longing within our souls. That deepest longing can only be satisfied in union with God – but when a soul turns in on itself, it stops seeking God and ends in a continual state of self-absorption and frustration. When a brother or sister points this out to another, it is not in some type of ‘holier than thou’ manoeuvre of superiority – a sort of spiritual ‘I’m better than you’ game. It is actually the most merciful, deepest form of kindness and love that we can perform for one another. It underscores the point that we are indeed in this together – that the Church is one body; not just a collection of individuals – and that sometimes we need to help ‘keep each other honest.’
If we fail to do this for each other, then we have failed in keeping the two commands to love God and to love our neighbour; what greater compassionate act can there be than striving to help others remain close to God?
The Old Testament language of the prophet Ezekiel (our first reading) may be worded more strongly, but this commission from God says the same thing; ‘I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you will give them warning from me.’ Ezekiel uses the word ‘the wicked’ to describe ‘sinners’, but ultimately it comes to the same thing. Anyone who listens to the Word of God, and keeps it in their heart, and lives in faithful union with God is responsible or helping others to remain in friendship with God; that’s what the Church is all about – that’s what remaining in community with the Church is all about. If means that pointing out truth is part of the price of being a disciple of Christ, a member of the Church. But as members of the Body of Christ, as people who desire to remain in union with God, we need to remember that having error pointed out is a two-way street. Just as we should be willing to share our observation of sin in a brother’s or sister’s life, we should be willing to receive those same observations about ourselves.
Because even with the possibility of negative consequences for our actions, there remains the knowledge that forgiveness and reconciliation are always at hand. Even if we place ourselves outside the community, or when each of us makes choices that move us away from God and the Church, we can always come back. God didn’t send His prophets into the world to say it was without hope. Jesus didn’t enter our humanity to tell us we were ‘doomed’. Jesus didn’t send His disciples into the world to spread the message that we can never return to God; all of salvation history is a message of love, of constant invitation to turn from ourselves and turn towards God. That’s what reconciliation is – that’s what we are all offered.
This is a relationship that we should feel compelled to share. As Christians is this invitation that we are commanded to offer to others.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!