23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 7, 2014
Being responsible for others in charity
Purpose: We bear a responsibility toward others. We must help them to avoid wrong, and encourage them in choosing the good. All of this we must do in love. St Gregory the Great provides an example of this.
Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Earlier this week, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Gregory the Great, who has some interesting and insightful words on our first reading today.
In the first reading, the Lord speaks of the role of a prophet as a watchman. A watchman is, as the name suggests, a lookout, someone who keeps watch for approaching danger. He warns people of impending danger so that they can take appropriate action.
Like a watchman, the prophet Ezekiel must also warn people of approaching dangers—spiritual dangers. He is given the responsibility of warning people about what is right and wrong, about what brings them closer to God, and what leads rhem away from God. If they heed his words, they will be safe. If they ignore his words, they are held responsible for their actions. But if Ezekiel fails to warn the people, and neglects his responsibility, then he is held responsible for their fate.
This passage has often been applied to the responsibility that bishops, priests, and deacons—preachers of the Gospel—have. Not only St. Gregory the Great, but St Augustine, as well as other great saints, and fathers of the Church, wrote at length on these and subsequent verses from Ezekiel.
This awesome responsibility, however, is not only for the shepherds of the Church. In the Gospel today, Jesus talks about the responsibility that each one of us has toward our brothers and sisters. And, fortunately, Jesus gives us an appropriate and tactful way of offering correction: if we notice a person’s fault, we don’t go around telling everyone else about it. Rather, we go to them privately and say something.
Isn’t this so often the opposite of what we do? If we feel wronged by someone, don’t we usually tell everyone except that person? But, Jesus tells us to go to them, one-on-one, privately. This way we allow the opportunity for the person to offer an explanation for what they did; maybe they had no idea that what they were doing was wrong. This allows for the opportunity for a genuine and sincere reconciliation, without unnecessary humiliation.
This is often called “fraternal correction,” which is very different from judging. Judging comes out a sense of self-righteousness, thinking that I am better than another, or holier than another, and for that reason I have the right to point out another’s faults. Judging can also come out of a certain insecurity that seeks to point out another’s faults in order to make my own faults not look so bad. I am sure we have all come across people like that in our lives, and all of us have probably acted that way once or twice.
Fraternal correction is different; it has another motivation. Its goal is, as Jesus says, “to win over your brother.” The goal is not to beat him or her down, nor is it to humiliate them. Fraternal correction comes out of genuine concern for another; it is out of a desire to see a friend or loved one become even better than they already are. The motivation is love, and nothing else. “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,”as St Paul said today. Its goal is to bring about deeper bonds of communion between the other person and Christ, and between you and the other person.
As I mentioned earlier, St. Gregory the Great commented on those previous verses from Ezekiel. In his commentary, Gregory shows us the right attitude that should go along with fraternal correction. When he speaks of his own responsibility as a watchman, St. Gregory says, “how hard it is for me to say this, for by these very words I denounce myself … I myself do not live my life according to my own preaching.” He then goes on to say how, when he lived in a monastery, before becoming Pope, it was so much easier for him to be attentive to prayer, to control his tongue in conversation with others, but that all this is more difficult now that he has been given the responsibility of the papacy. He is well aware of his own shortcomings, and asks: who is he to serve as a watchman, what gives him the right to speak? And he answers himself saying: “Because I love him (Jesus), I do not spare myself in speaking of him.”
Now, I know I havesaid a lot about correcting others, but let’s remember something that we should do even more often than we correct: that is, we should encourage others. St. Paul says, “Encourage one another and build one another up”(1 Thes 5:11). However much we might be called upon to offer some gentle correction to another person, we should make sure that even more often we find ourselves encouraging and commending another’s good deeds. Because our faith is not, first and foremost, about what we’re doing wrong. But it is a “yes”—a “yes” to Christ, and a “yes”to the life, the mercy, the joy he offers us. Through both encouragement and correction, we are freed up in order to offer a more generous “yes”to Jesus.