Gospel For Today: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time



What do you do when you see a friend heading down the wrong path?  In college, this can be an all-too-common occurrence.  Especially with Christian friends who begin to do things we know are displeasing to God, it can be heart wrenching.  What are we as caring friends and fellow members of the Body of Christ supposed to do?  Should we say something and risk losing our friendship?  Should we hold our tongue and watch our friend descend into darkness?

In today’s first reading (Ez 33:7-9) we read of Ezekiel being appointed as watchman over the house of Israel.  One of the tasks he was entrusted with was rebuking those who sinned against God.  God even tells Ezekiel that if he sees someone going astray and doesn’t attempt to correct him, God will hold Ezekiel himself accountable for that person’s sin!  On the other hand, if Ezekiel warns the person, but that person doesn’t heed the warning, Ezekiel will at least save himself.
Jesus, in today’s gospel (Mt 18:15-20), lays out similar instructions for us in the Church, the new house of Israel.  He entrusts the Apostles (and through them, their successors) with the power to bind and loose, as we saw two weeks ago when Christ spoke similar words to Peter.  This power to bind and loose involves not only the authority to loose us from our sins by conveying God’s forgiveness, but also the power to govern those in the Church community.  The Church’s authority to govern has the same source and the same end as her authority to forgive: that authority comes from God; its purpose is to reconcile us with God.
Like Ezekiel, Christians today have a duty to rebuke our neighbors when we see them doing something displeasing to God.  Does this mean we have to point out all of our neighbor’s faults?  Of course not.  (If we did that, our neighbor may start pointing out some faults of our own, such as being overly critical and tactless!)  But it does mean attempting to correct our neighbor when we see him or her heading down a path that is leading them away from God — which is to say, toward their own destruction.
This is because the call to rebuke does not come from an imperative to put down others or to make ourselves look “holier than thou.”  No, the call to rebuke comes from the command to love our neighbors (Mk 12:31).  Indeed, we are to love our neighbors as we do ourselves.  Because we love ourselves, we want to be in right relationship with God.  God is love, God is truth, God is goodness, and we want all of these things in our lives.  If we truly love our neighbor, then we want the same for them, too.  Therefore if we see them doing anything that endangers their soul, out of love we need to correct them.
But how should we do it?  Jesus spells it out.  First, don’t scandalize your neighbor.  Let their private sin remain private (not that any sin is truly private; all sin wounds the entire Body of Christ).  But we each have a right to our good reputation, and you don’t want one person’s sin to become a scandal for others.  So speak to them first about it in private, as a brother or sister.  As Christ says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”
And if he or she does not listen?  Then you are to “take one or two others along with you.”  Sometimes people who won’t respond to individual correction will take it more seriously if a number of people (who care about them) express their concern.  The key either way is to do it from a place of genuine love.  As St. Paul says in today’s second reading (Rom 13:8-10), we owe our neighbors a debt of love — even (and especially) when they seem to reject that love.
Finally, if they refuse to listen to a group of friends, then Jesus says, tell it to the Church.  This is one of only two times that Jesus uses the word “Church” in the gospels (the first was when He established the Church on the rock of Peter).  Both times, Christ speaks of the Church’s authority to bind and loose.  If the wayward person refuses to listen even to the Church, then and only then are you to “treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”  These were people that first century Jews generally wanted nothing to do with.  They were outside of the community.  Jesus is telling us that unrepentant public sinners should be excommunicated from the community of believers.
Why?  Is it because they don’t want to play by the Church’s rules so they can’t come into the clubhouse?  No.  Just as with Ezekiel, the point of the Church’s final rebuke is to try to bring the sinner back to God.  By persisting in sin, the sinner distances himself from the life of God.  They distance themselves from Love itself.  If he or she continues in that direction without turning back, that path ultimately leads to damnation.  When the Church excommunicates someone, that eviction from the life of the Church brings into focus the fact that the person has evicted themselves from the life of God.  It is meant to be a wake-up call, like an intervention with an alcoholic or drug addict.  The point of it is to heal, even if the method seems harsh.
The mission of the Church is to reconcile sinners to God.  In order to be reconciled, we must first recognize that we are sinners. Sometimes being brought to the realization of our sins hurts.  But like a mother who causes her child pain by dabbing alcohol on a skinned knee, the pain is therapeutic.  The Church does not intend the pain, only the healing that is to follow.
Finally, the absolute best thing you can do when someone you care about is veering away from God, is to pray. Pray daily and pray sincerely.  We can correct and we can rebuke; indeed our faith commands us to do so.  But we cannot change anyone’s minds for them.  Only they can respond to the call of the Spirit. Only they can soften their hearts to accept God’s forgiveness.  Remember that God loves that person even more than you do.  In your prayers for them, let our psalm response today be a plea for your wayward brother or sister.  “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723