23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes
Jesus teaches us today about how to practice fraternal correction. In short, if a brother or sister in the Church sins against you, approach him or her privately. If that fails to persuade, come again with one or two others. If that does not work, bring the matter to the Church. And “if he refuses to listen even to the Church,” Jesus says, “then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Jesus says to treat an obstinately unrepentant Christian like “a Gentile or a tax collector.” What are we to make of this?
How would the Jewish crowds hearing Jesus’ preaching treat Gentiles or tax collectors? The Old Covenant kept Jews and Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) separate. For example, archeologists have found stone signs from the Jewish temple dating to the Gospel era which warned Gentiles or foreigners not to enter its inner courts. Those signs’ chiseled, red letters declared in Greek: “No foreigner is to enter within the stone railing [balustrade] around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught will himself be responsible for his ensuing death.” Without full conversion to Judaism, Gentiles in those days could not enjoy full communion with God’s people. Meanwhile, Jewish tax collectors were viewed as collaborators with Israel’s enemies, traitors harming their own people, and shunned. So how would the early Church respond in the case of a persistently unrepentant Christian?
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul addresses a scandalous matter brought to him concerning the Church in Corinth. He writes, “It is widely reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of a kind not found even among pagans — a man living with his father’s wife,” that is, his stepmother. I imagine if you had asked this romantic couple why they were together, they might have answered, with sincerity, “We love each other!” They might have said what they were doing made them happy. They might have even said, “All love is love.” How would St. Paul answer? In today’s second reading from God’s inspired word, he says, “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” But not all things called “love” are loving in accord with Christ’s commands. Not all pleasures lead to true and lasting happiness. Not all paths lead to God.
In the case of that scandal at Corinth, St. Paul the Apostle declares to the Church:
“The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. I, for my part, although absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as if present, pronounced judgment on the one who has committed this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus: when you have gathered together and I am with you in spirit with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
St. Paul excommunicates the man. It is a strong response because grave sin is serious business. (The man’s partner who goes unmentioned was apparently not a member of the Church.) The goal of an excommunication, beyond the spiritual welfare of the community, is the sinner’s conversion and salvation. St. Paul’s loving hope was that this offender’s sufferings would eventually lead to the salvation of his soul. For better or worse, formal excommunications are uncommon today. Nevertheless, just because one’s body remains inside the church building does not mean his or her soul remains with Christ. If we are living in grave sin, we need to repent and go to confession. And if someone else gravely sins, we could be called, with discernment and prayer, to share the truth in love.
When Jesus says to treat the unrepentant like “a Gentile or a tax collector,” recall how he himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Though not yet converted, he loved them. He cared about them and wanted to draw them to himself. He wished for them to change their ways and eventually come into full communion with him in his Church. If we are prayerful and loving, Jesus will enable us to correct the errant in a Christ-like way, and perhaps they will be saved.
Like our Lord appointed the Prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading to be a watchman for the house of Israel, the Lord may call on you to invite sinners to change their way. As a watchman who loves God’s holy city and wishes the blessed number within her to grow, without abandoning your post on the walls of truth, encourage those who are spiritually outside of her walls to pass through the gate of mercy.