When Love Isn’t Nice

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Psalm 95:8

“Nice” is an interesting word. Today we use it to describe someone pleasant and kind who seeks to get along with everybody. Historically, the word “nice” originally referred to someone who was ignorant or foolish. Perhaps there is a lesson for us there. While it’s understandable to want to always get along with people, it is foolish to think that will always be possible. This is especially true of those whom we love.

Love means more than just getting along. Loving someone means being willing to tell them uncomfortable truths for their own good. When you see someone you love hurting themselves by making poor decisions or acting in harmful ways, the right thing to do is to confront them with your concerns. Ignoring, or even encouraging, their bad behavior for the sake of getting along is not love; it is cowardice.

God loves us, and God is no coward. So God rebukes us when we go astray. We see this in action in the ministry of the prophets God sent to rebuke the wayward people of Israel, one of whom was Ezekiel. In the first reading for this Sunday, God tells Ezekiel that he is responsible for proclaiming God’s word, regardless of whether or not the people want to hear it or are willing to accept it.

Often we may hesitate to tell someone what they need to hear it because we’d much rather tell them what they want to hear. This Sunday’s readings remind us that God expects us to speak the truth regardless. But of course the truth must be spoken in love. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus provides an outline of how to lovingly rebuke someone who has sinned.

First, our Lord says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” When someone does something to offend us, often our first reaction is to complain about that person to others around us. This is the sin of gossip, and leads to more harm than good. Jesus would have us talk to the person involved directly, in private, to seek reconciliation in a way that preserves their reputation. This shows respect and care for them as an individual. 

If that works, then great! If not, Jesus says the next step should be to “take one or two others along with you.” This is not to “gang up on” anyone. This is so that the truth can better be established by the testimony of others. One person’s criticism can be easily dismissed, but when you hear the same thing from multiple people it is harder to ignore.

Finally, if the person still does not repent, Jesus says only then to “tell the Church.” Christ has given the Church moral authority on earth, and part of that authority is to publicly call sinners to repentance. The prophetic voice of the hierarchy — the deacons, priests and bishops of the Church — is to publicly denounce sin as sin, like Ezekiel, whether or not people want to listen. This is not only for the good of the sinner, to call him or her to conversion, but for the good of all the faithful, so that they don’t become confused on moral issues. 

The final remedy the Church has at her disposal is excommunication; a public decree that a person’s sins are so grave that they have put themselves outside of communion with the Church. Even then, the point is not to condemn that person but to clearly articulate the harmful consequences of their actions for the sake of calling them to repentance and reconciliation. 

The word “excommunication” sounds harsh. Didn’t Jesus eat with prostitutes and tax collectors? Yes, he did. Our Lord associated with sinners to call them to conversion, not to condone their sins. Isn’t it funny how when we think of Jesus eating with sinners, our instinct is to identify with Christ when in reality, we have much more in common with the prostitutes and tax collectors? 

The words of our Psalm this Sunday remind us that, as important as it is for us to offer loving words of rebuke to those who need to hear them, it is equally important for us to be open to receiving those words of rebuke ourselves from the prophetic voices that we hear. All of us are all called to ongoing conversion.

If there is any aspect of my life that is trending away from God or creating discord between me and my neighbors, I pray that God sends a prophetic voice to call me back to faithfulness, and I pray for the grace to respond in humility.And I pray the same for you. “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.”