Admonishing the Sinner

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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What do you do when someone you care about does something you know to be sinful? This is a question all Christians struggle with. You know their sin is harmful, and it hurts you to see someone you care about hurting themselves. But you don’t want to come across as judgmental. This can be especially difficult if you are making a real effort to learn about the faith and follow the moral teachings of the Church. If you are striving to eliminate sin in your own life, it can be hard to witness those around you engaging in the type of behavior you are trying to leave behind.

What is our responsibility to our brothers and sisters who engage in sinful acts? Are we to correct them and point out the error of their ways? Or are we to turn a blind eye, saying, “Who am I to judge?”

As Christians, we cannot turn a blind eye to sin.  Scripture is clear on this. Throughout the New Testament, John the Baptist, the Apostles, and most of all Jesus constantly call for people to repent of their sins. Even in the Old Testament, God sent prophets to Israel for the purpose of calling people away from their sins and back to fidelity to God’s commandments. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Live and let live,” or “to each his own.”

Yet, the scriptures do forbid us to judge our neighbor, and say that we should first remove the beam from our own eye before pointing out the splinter in the eye of another. Those same scriptures command us to love our neighbor, and it is this love of neighbor — not a sense of self-righteousness — that should motivate us to admonish the sinner.

There is a difference between judging people and judging actions. God forbids us to judge people. That is His job, not ours. We can never be fully aware of what is going on inside another’s heart. On the other hand, God does expect us to judge actions; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to know the difference between right and wrong. First and foremost, we are to judge our own actions. Only then may we dare judge the actions of others. We must always be mindful of our own need for repentance and conversion before we admonish anyone else.

And the purpose of our admonishment should never be condemnation, but so that the sinner may experience forgiveness and healing in Christ. This is why admonishing the sinner is considered by the Church to be a spiritual work of mercy. If it is to be done at all, it must always be done as an act of love.

This week’s readings tell us a great deal about how we should go about this work of mercy.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices

This is not to say we don’t share some responsibility for others. As Christians, we know that we have a serious responsibility to care for those in need; to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and so forth. Taking care of our neighbor also means taking care of them spiritually. After all, what good does it do a person to have a well fed body if his soul is starving to death? We have a responsibility to help our neighbors grow in holiness.

But ultimately we are each responsible for our own choices. You can give a hungry person food; you cannot force him to eat. You can give a naked person a coat; you cannot force him to put it on. Admonishing the sinner is the same way. You can encourage someone to repent of their sins, but ultimately the decision is theirs. You cannot make that decision for them.

Just as they are responsible for their own actions, you are responsible for yours. In this Sunday’s first reading, God tells Ezekiel that if he does not speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil ways, they will die, and God will hold Ezekiel responsible for their deaths. But if Ezekiel does speak out, even if they refuse to listen to him, Ezekiel will be saved. In other words, God holds Ezekiel accountable for delivering the message, not for whether people accept it.

If you have a friend or a loved one who is engaged in sin, you have a responsibility to speak God’s truth. But it is their responsibility to listen. You cannot make someone receive a truth they are not willing to hear.

Practical Advice

So what if they don’t listen? Do we keep hounding them until they come around? Or do we say our piece once and then walk away? Every situation will require prudential judgment, but this Sunday’s gospel contains some practical advice in this regard from Jesus Himself:

  • First, talk with the person privately about it. This is important! So often our instinct is to talk about the problem with everyone except the one involved! There is no need to make their sin more widely known than it is, and in fact doing so constitutes gossip, which is a sin itself. Instead we should keep it private and approach them alone, in love.
  • If that doesn’t work, take two or three trusted individuals along with you to speak with them. This allows you to bring in other voices, who can offer an outside perspective. But it still keeps the circle small and relatively private.
  • If that still doesn’t work, tell it to the Church. Talk with your pastor about it. Note: don’t go to your pastor just to complain about the other person. And don’t go straight to your pastor without having tried steps one and two above; the first question he will probably ask is, “Have you spoken with them about this?” The pastor of the local church has spiritual authority over his flock. If a member of the flock is having a serious problem with sin, it’s his job — and his responsibility — to help them work through that.
  • If they are not willing to receive correction from the Church, Jesus says, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” In other words, an outsider. The Catholic word for that is excommunication. This is a harsh sounding word, but it reflects the fact that obstinate refusal to repent of a serious (mortal) sin places a person outside of communion with the Church. This doesn’t mean you have to cut off all contact with such a person. It certainly doesn’t mean you cease to love them.  But it does mean they need serious evangelization, just like anyone else outside the Church.


Ultimately, we have to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who brings sinners to conversion, not us. We can be facilitators of the Spirit in someone’s life. And we should pray always that we don’t get in the Spirit’s way. We can be obstacles to conversion if we are living hypocritically or giving scandal to the gospel through our own sinful actions. It is important that our lives be authentic witnesses of Christian joy and love. But conversion is God’s work, not ours. We have to trust that God is working in people’s lives in ways we cannot see.

So we do our part by witnessing to God’s truth and love. Then we pray. At the end of the day, our prayer is the most powerful tool we have to help people find the courage to turn away from their sins. Jesus says in our gospel, “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” (Mt 18:19).

Pray today first that you may hear the voice of God and follow it faithfully. Pray for God’s light to shine on those areas of your heart that are still holding on to sin, and those aspects of your life you still have not given over fully to Him. Pray for the strength to turn away first from your own sin. Then pray that any friends, family members, neighbors or acquaintances you have who are struggling with sin themselves may also recognize the voice of God speaking to them — perhaps through the witness of Christians such as yourself — and may decide today to cooperate with the Spirit, turn away from their sins, toward eternal life with Christ.