23rd SUNDAY OF YEAR A
Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Matt 18:15-20
Conflicts abound everywhere that there are human beings. There are conflicts in the family, in the churches, in cultural groups, in schools, in meeting houses, in offices, etc. Sometimes the conflict is brief and minor. At other times, the conflict can be drawn out and destructive. Conflicts split groups of people. People have walked away from the faith, from apostolic groups in the church, from their families, from friends, etc. because of conflicts. And in many cases, the reputation of the Church of God is known to have suffered as a result of conflicts among its members. The harm brought about by conflicts is due to people ignoring what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel (Matt 18:15ff).
- SOME SCRIPTURAL BACKING OF FRATERNAL CORRECTION
First, let us read from the gospel text of today: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matt 18:15-17).
Furthermore, in order to understand this text above, we need to read Galatians 6:1-3, where St. Paul reiterates the following: “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way, obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important” (Gal 6:1–3). In the book of Leviticus, it is stated plainly even regarding family conflict, “Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin” (Lev 19:17).
In these cases, together with the admonition of the 1st reading of today, we are given some very good principles on how to go about correcting our brothers and sisters:
- WE ARE WATCHMEN OVER ONE ANOTHER
The readings of today tell us that as members of a Church, a church or social group, or as a family, we are accountable to and for one another. Quite often, we miss this, with the excuse that we do not want to nose into other people’s affairs. In the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we hear God say, “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman.” (Ezek 33:7) As Christians and co-prophets, it is our duty to intervene, speak out frankly, and make people understand that they have moved away from God and are ruining their lives. If we do not, then we will be held responsible for the ruin of a brother/sister. The passage above, from the Letter to the Galatians, makes it clear that we are to be watching out for each other. We have to play the role of watchman. We need to remember that the words, “I am not my brother’s keeper,” (Gen 4:9) spoken by Cain, were condemned vehemently by God. People of God should recognize their responsibility towards each other. Husbands and wives are keepers of each other. Parents, you are keepers of your children! Young people, you are the keepers of your parents! However, we are not talking about the creepy obsession ‘to spy on others’. This is about a genuine regard for holiness in the body of Christ, in the community or group or family. We are to address behaviours that hurt the character and reputation of the church/family and those things which become a barrier between one member of the church and the other. We have the job of vigilance for our souls – and for those close to us. It is not an easy task, but it is vital. And this task lasts as long as we live.
- CONFRONT THE ISSUE PRIVATELY
In the book of Leviticus, it is stated plainly regarding family conflict: “Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) Inspired by the OT text above, Jesus tells us that we are to go FIRST to the person who is involved in this bad behaviour. This is the opposite of what we often do. Often, our first step is to marshal support with others. We talk to our friends, other members of our group/association, the leaders of the church, and even broadcast our concerns all over Facebook before we talk to the person involved! This is just as much sinful as what the person did to you!
Instead, says Jesus, we should go first to the person, for several reasons:
- i) He/she may be UNAWARE of the offense
- ii) You may have MISUNDERSTOOD what was said or done
iii) It is easier to SOLVE PROBLEMS BEFORE OTHERS BECOME INVOLVED. You and the person involved may work things out more easily, without involving others.
When we talk to others before we have talked to the person we feel offended by, we are slandering them by saying negative things before we have clarified or given that person a chance to respond or repent. The more people involved, the more damaging and wide ranging the effect. This includes talking to the priest and other leaders in the church. If you see a problem, do not rush to call the Priest or anyone else in a guise to “share your prayer concern”. (Many gossips are known to have been spread under the guise of ‘prayer of intercession’ in public.) No! Go and talk to the person directly, humbly, and with a desire to restore rather than to punish or diminish. To obey the teaching of Jesus, our endeavours must be anchored IN LOVE. “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12). In the 2nd Reading of today, Paul says: “All the commandments…are summed up in this single command: ‘You must love you neighbor as yourself.’”
- INVOLVE OTHERS ONLY WHEN NECESSARY
This three-stage procedure given by Jesus is inspired by Deut 19:15 – “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only with the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Let us suppose that you go and talk with someone but he/she raises hell on you. The person refuses to talk about the issue. Now, says Jesus, you must go back and get a couple of other people to return with you. These should be people who are wise and reasonable. Together, you shall talk to the person for the purpose of bringing him/her back to faith in Christ and to the church. The hope is that the person will see the seriousness of his/her actions and repent.
Jesus says, if these contacts are unsuccessful (and there may be more than one meeting individually or with the small group), then the only recourse is to enlist the entire body (community, family, or church group) to bring corporate pressure. If the person does not respond to the group, he/she is to be excluded from the church in the hope that he/she will eventually realize his/her mistake, repent and then return to the fold.
- SEEKING RECOURSE TO THE COMMUNITY.
This last stage should take place only in cases when the sin committed may risk upsetting the Christian community, the family or the group, particularly giving scandal to those with weaker faith. If someone will not listen to trusted people, then one has to consider the possibility of separation. That is painful, like amputating an arm; but it is sometimes necessary. The final recourse that we may have is to deny someone Communion. The Canon Law stipulates that any person conscious of grave sin (among whom are those who manifestly refuse to forgive or to repent) should stay away from communion (cf. Canon 915). This means that the person is behaving in such a way that he/she has become a public scandal. However, only a bishop can impose such a penalty. It is done with the hope that the person will recognize the harm he/she is doing. The goal (as St. Paul makes it clear in Gal. 6) is repentance, that is, the salvation of that person’s soul.
- THE CONTRARY AND COMMON APPROACH TO CONFLICT
Unfortunately, what Jesus stipulates is not what usually happens in our daily experiences. Quite often, we either bury our head in the sand and hope that the problem will just go away (and it never does), or we enlist a “coalition army” before we even speak with the one who has caused (willfully or unwillfully) an offense! Sometimes phones are buzzing, people are whispering in Whatsapp or other social media groups, conclusions are being drawn, and the person is demonized BEFORE any attempt to talk to him/her directly. And when we finally get around to talking to the offender, we are so worked up and there is so much emotion generated that we come into the discussion with a “machine gun”! In this regard, we need to bear in mind two things:
- a) Sometimes when a wrongdoer refuses to listen to us, the fault may be ours. Maybe our approach was not good enough. It may have been designed to offend or humiliate the wrongdoer rather than correct him/her. In that case, the offender will tell us “TO GO MIND OUT BUSINESS”. Therefore, when we correct people, we should do so with respect, charity, gentleness, without hurting their feelings unnecessarily. We should do so without humiliating them or “putting them down”. A well-known adage says that “You can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” We could do otherwise in order to achieve the same results or better!
- b) On the other hand, we need to allow ourselves to be corrected if and when we go wrong. We should not make it unduly difficult for people to correct us. Sometimes, when people fail to correct us, it is because of our attitude. They may be afraid of hurting our feelings or that we may take offence and respond with hostility. If people fail to correct us because we make it difficult for them to do so, we are the losers, since nobody is above mistake and nobody is beyond wrongdoing. If and when people correct us, they are doing us a favour. They are showing us love. They are carrying out the demands of fraternal correction in our regard. Is this not what Jesus asks us to do in today’s gospel?
- HOW TO EXACT DISCIPLINE IN ANY GROUP
Discipline in any group is not about power and authority. It is about love. This is something that each one of us, as Christians, must make an effort to practice in the face of conflicts. If YOU are the one offended, YOU are supposed to go to the person with whom YOU have a problem. Most of the time, no one else should ever need to be involved. The searching question in this respect is: how do you know whether you should go and talk with someone? Here are some questions to ask yourself before you go and talk to someone else:
- i) Is this an issue that has undermined my relationship with this person or is it detrimental to his/her spiritual journey or damaging to your group, family, association, etc.? If so, confront him/her. If not, it may be something you just need to overlook or forgive. After all, we all have bad days. We all say stupid things on occasion. In these cases, we should be willing to overlook the offense rather than take offense.
- ii) To what Scripture text can I point in order to show why I am so concerned?
iii) Do I have the right attitude? Is my desire meant to help the person or do I find subversive pleasure in confronting this individual? If the latter, then I need to skip confronting the other person and spend some time repenting of my own sin.
- iv) Am I guilty of talking to others before I talk to the person involved? Have I truly gotten all the facts? Am I guilty of “stirring up trouble” by talking first to others? Do I need to apologize and ask for forgiveness from the other person?
- v) Am I prepared to come to the person humbly and lovingly or do I plan to bring out a ‘machine gun’? If the latter, then I better not take the step.
Many people find the issue of fraternal correction an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Discussing about the rules and regulation of any group or association of people, the issue over which people debate the most is the section on DISCIPLINE, that is, how to handle those who commit offense within the group or against us personally. The problem is that generally we have a strong tendency to be inconsistent. We are willing to confront some sin but not others. We may confront some people but hesitant to confront others. Our challenge is to care about ALL sin, knowing that when we act alongside others, out of a desire to correct a problem and redeem someone from a sinful situation, we are acting with God’s approval. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. Therefore, it is our task as Christians to seek the spiritual health of our brothers and sisters. Let us always remember – love is patient and kind; it forgives; it endures all (cf. 1Cor 13). St. Paul calls love a “charism” – a gift from God. It is a gift that we have to ask God to grant us always.
Let us, therefore, pray for this gift of LOVE towards our brothers/sisters, especially those who go astray!