Jesus shatters the illusion that we are alone in the Gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
He gives very practical, very difficult advice on forgiveness and prayer that amounts to: We’re all in this together — until we realize that, tragically, we are not.
The command to reprimand our friends is one of the most difficult commands of Jesus.
Jesus begins today’s advice to his disciples with: “If your brother sins against you, go tell him the fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”
St. John Chrysostom points out what Jesus doesn’t say you should do. “He does not say ‘accuse him’ or ‘punish him’ or ‘take him to court.’ He says ‘correct him.’ … Help him see his indiscretion. Tell him what you have suffered from him.”
One possible result of that is a reconciliation — growing closer. But there is another strong possibility. Jesus addresses that next: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you,” and he quotes where the Law of Moses specifies exactly this.
What if he still refuses to listen? “Tell the church.” And what if he won’t listen even then? “Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” that is, still try to win him over — but now as an outsider, not as a confidant and fellow disciple.
In other words: We are all connected; we are not all autonomous individuals; we all bear responsibility for each other. Act like that’s true.
This is extremely practical advice that we practically never follow.
As powerful and specific as this advice is, we tend to fail it in several predictable ways.
First, we fail to tell the person face to face. We begin by angrily keeping the injury to ourselves — but then someone sees that we are brooding and asks us what’s wrong, and we blurt out a harsh, damning form of our complaint, assuming the motives of the sinner and giving them no benefit of the doubt. Or maybe instead of (or in addition to) blurting it out to someone else, we do confront the person — either by snubbing them in some way that is meaningful to us but often mystifying to them, or by writing an email to them that is way too long and a little too bitter, or a text that is a little too short and way too bitter.
Jesus brilliantly takes on both of these errors with his advice about getting others involved. This locks down the evidence such that the details of the incident are more clear and more objective — it serves as a check on our own narrative. When we tell someone else what we’re mad about, it gives them a chance to say, “Calm down. You’re blowing this out of proportion” — either directly, or by offering excuses for the sinner.
But we often fail at this stage, too. Instead of the other person serving to tamp down our anger, we lay out the details in such a way that we stoke theirs. Now, two of us are together making the same mistaken assumption about someone. Or, worse, we get a bunch of people riled up, on mass-emails or social media, and soon we have maligned someone’s reputation and put them in a box, all without reaching out to the person even once.
Jesus has a remedy for this, too: He says to go to witnesses only, and after that, to get others involved only if we are willing to do so formally, by bringing their case to the official organization of disciples, the Church. If you aren’t willing to go there, then don’t start the process to begin with.
How does one get “the Church” involved? Ultimately, this is Jesus referring to excommunication as the ultimate recourse to declare someone “in” or “out” of his body. But short of removal from the Church by a bishop, groups of disciples can either hold someone accountable or let them slide. But this is a drastic power in any case.
The Doctors of the Church point out two things here. First, there is a command to forgive; second there are things you can’t forgive.
St. Jerome points out something very important: “If our brother has sinned against us and damaged us in anything, we have the power of dismissing it, in fact the obligation to do so.”
But, “if anyone sins against God, it is not in our control.” It’s not our place to dismiss that sin. God has to. So then it becomes necessary for us to do the hard thing and bring that person to repentance.
The problem is, we get this exactly backwards, says St. Jerome. We “are lenient over a sin against God but act out our hatred when we ourselves are insulted.” We demand total respect for ourselves — but tolerate grave disrespect for God.
St. Augustine says that in a case like this, as in a case when someone other than us is harmed, it is a sin to fail to correct a sinner. “If you fail to do so, you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse.”
Ezekiel in the First Reading gets harsher still: If “you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Thank God we have the one thing that makes it possible to do the hard work of correction.
Jesus is not asking us to do something he hasn’t done himself.
God saw the predicament we are in, stymied by pride, with self-love blinding our consciences. And rather than shrug us off and refuse to intervene, he practiced what he preaches today.
He doesn’t see the straying sheep and say, “Too bad; get lost.” The incarnation shows how he came after us.
He didn’t say to the woman in adultery, “Whatever, do what you will.” He said: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
He didn’t look down on sinful humanity from heaven and say, “Follow Satan if you want. You deserve nothing but my anger and that’s all you’ll get.” He came down among sinful humanity and told us exactly what was wrong, even though it got him nailed to a cross.
He is love incarnate, and this is what love does. Love is the secret to fulfilling this Gospel. As St. Paul puts it in Sunday’s Second Reading: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
His love breaks open of each of our autonomous, self-centered egos, and helps us look out for each other. As he puts it in the Gospel, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
So this Sunday at Mass we’re starting the process we need to begin in order to be able to do the hard thing and correct.
At Mass we gather in his name, and he is in our midst — and then he is on our altar, then on our tongue, then in our lives. With each other, in him, we live out his life, the life of Love Incarnate, drawing more and more people into his way of serving others.
And we live his beautiful love even when that means we have to say, “I’m sorry I have to bring this up, but what you did is not okay.”