Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: 9-10-17
Peace be with You,
This weekend brings several of the themes we have been exploring as of late to new depth, doing so in the fashion of providing more detail. Specifically, our focus for today will play directly into what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, the instrument of God’s forgiving love in the world, as we spoke of two weekends ago. Moreover, it is also connected to the idea that we find our truest identity only in Christ, spoken of over the last two weekends. Finally, our discussion for today ties directly into our discussion from last weekend where we, following the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, explored the idea that the ability to change and grow is the finest quality of human nature. The necessary connections will be made at the appropriate time as we move along, however, it is good to recall the instruction we have received as of late, gathering as we do each weekend to learn together from the Master Teacher, our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is important to note that those themes just listed are not hypothetical claims nor opinions, they are truth claims.
The nature of our discussion today presupposes that such claims can and ought to be made. Already we find ourselves at odds with the contemporary world, for whom “truth” is a downright dirty word. How often don’t we hear a conversation taking place where one person tries to forward a claim and is replied to with something along the lines of: “well that may be true for you but that’s your truth, not mine.” Now, if we are talking about what our favorite pizza toppings are, or about the merits of sleeping on one’s back as opposed to one’s side to maximize rest, then such a response is valid. However, when speaking of human nature and the manner in which we are to operate so as to flourish which we call morality, then there are universal truth claims at stake; to claim otherwise would be tantamount to claiming there is no such thing as human nature (which some people actually do), or that Jesus was merely waxing poetic when he said that he was the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:16). Of course, there are nuances to be made to every truth claim, for as long as we operate this side of the veil we will not know absolute Truth in its completeness, there remains an element of mystery to all things. That said, by the loving mercy of God, the veil has been torn (Matt. 27:51), and we have been afforded a glimpse of Truth and to we who once walked in darkness a Light has been shown (Isaiah 9:2; Matt. 4:16; John 8:12; Acts 26:18). In this Light is our humanity found, in this we find our true happiness (John 10:10).
Thus, this Light who shines in the darkness (John 1:5) enlightens us today (John 1:9) and calls us to echo the voice of Truth in the lives of those around us and so cast light into a world so filled with darkness. This is a topic many are uncomfortable with, and for good reason as we shall see, but nevertheless it is an intrinsic part of the Christian life; this topic I speak of is what we might call fraternal correction, or the spiritual work of mercy to admonish the sinner. As our Lord says “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matt. 18:15) privately at first (Matt. 18:15). Next, we are told that if he does not listen then bringing along additional persons to give voice to the same truth (Matt. 18:16). Then, if he or she is still insists on their innocence we are told to bring them to the assembly of the Church to be corrected (Matt. 18:17); and finally, if they still refuse to listen they must be cast out of the community (ibid.) in the hopes that they may by such a serious sign see their error and be welcomed back into the Body of Christ. This last point I take to be implied by the way our Lord immediately connects this teaching with his promise to the Church through Peter, that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose in earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18 cf. Matt. 16:19). What’s more, to emphasize this promise he adds what he had not said before telling them: “again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:19-20). To be sure, there are right and wrong ways to go about admonishing one another, and we will turn to this shortly. However, it is important to recall first, that this work of binding and loosing is not one of imposing the self on another; for the way of the proud is not the way of him who humbled himself in order raise us to new life in him (Philippians 2:6-11; cf. Romans 6:8; 2 Timothy 2:11-13); rather to be humble in all things is to live with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-5); and secondly, that such work is for the forgiveness of sins, i.e. for the healing of division, division within the human family and division between the human family and God. Therefore, such work must always be done with an eye toward reconciliation, not simply to discard our fallen brothers and sisters on the side of the road (cf. Luke 10:25-37).
We see this message come through loud and clear when we take a look at our first reading for today from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. However, in order to see this we must broaden our view of the text a bit. The passage as we hear it from the pews is but a very small portion of a longer passage where God is explaining to Ezekiel the work he is asking him to carry out. In the portion we hear read aloud (Ez. 33:7-10), it is quite clear that the prophet is being called to admonish the sinner, calling this work that of a sentinel or watchman, the reason for which we will see shortly, and thus receives the same call we receive from our Lord today. However, the reason why as well as the manner in which the prophet is called to do so is of special interest to our examination. The reason why comes before and after this portion of the passage. In the portion immediately prior, God explains to Ezekiel why he calls this work that of a sentinel or watchman, and he does so using the image of a lookout, continually watching over a city, ready to alert the people of that city of any potential attack he sees on the horizon (Ez. 33:1-6). He does this work to save the people of the city, and thus in the portion immediately following that which we hear, God tells Ezekiel that this is the reason he is sending him to admonish the people of Judah of their errant ways. For he tells the prophet to say to the people: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” (Ez. 33:11). He is speaking here of the impending historical doom of the people, and thus the loss of their earthly lives, but on a deeper level he is speaking of their ultimate fate; for to be eternally separated from God is true and ultimate death; and it is this death which God wishes to avert the people from; thus prefiguring the warning of our Lord spoken in the gospel, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The prophet, then, is calling the people to change their ways in order that they might be reconciled to God and live in the truest sense This is precisely why we are called to admonish one another, because God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
So we see that we are called to undertake this work of admonishing one another for the good of one another, but how must we do this work? Admittedly this is a difficult thing to do, but we are given a great deal of guidance as to how to go about it in our readings for today. We find the first element in the same reading from Ezekiel. Notice please that in sending the prophet to call the people to repentance, he specifically tells him “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (Ez. 33:7). Thus, our approach must always be informed by the Word of God; i.e. it must be based upon Scripture and the Tradition which has interpreted it for millennia. Outside of this, we simply have no footing, and are liable to exchange one shortcoming for another and make both our neighbor’s situation as well as our own worse than it had been previously. The Book of Job provides us with a good example of those who set out to admonish apart from the Word of God. As Job sits in squalor, his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite come to him, we are told, with the intent to “console and comfort him” (Job 2:11). However, as their time together progresses, they each, in turn admonish Job, telling him they he must have done something wrong to have deserved such punishment, first Eliphaz (Job 4:7-8), then Bildad (Job 8:20) and then Zophar (Job 11:14-15, 17). But Job insists he is innocent and eventually God responds, first clearing Job of any guilt and then turning to his friends and demanding that they make reparations to Job for haven spoken wrongly of both Job and of Him (Job 42:7-9).
To accomplish this quite often takes time, and this is absolutely fine because it plays right into a second key element which must figure into this work; and that is that we must carry out this act with the utmost patience. That this is a necessary part of admonishing one another is made obvious in our gospel reading for today. It is seen in the various steps our Lord asks us to take in correcting one another; we are first to address the individual alone, then in a small group, then a large group before finally coming to a decision to cut ties, at least temporarily (God willing)(Matt. 18:15-17). Stop for a moment and consider the amount of time that would have lapsed from the first attempt at correction to the last; days certainly, but more than likely weeks or months. And this is a good thing for a couple of reasons. First, in being patient with one another we imitate God; who has patiently instructed the human family since the time of the Fall in what it means to be human.
However, there is a second reason why this process should be slow and that is that it gives us time to approach the situation in a prayerful manner. Here we recall again that the prophet Ezekiel was to tell the people what God spoke to him. In addition to taking place through reading the Scriptures, God speaks to the conscience in prayer which requires time and silence. In commenting on Matthew 6:6 and our Lord’s instruction that when we pray we must ‘enter into our chambers,’ Augustine writes “What are these ‘chambers’ but the hearts themselves…it is not enough to merely go into the chamber…the door must be closed—we must resist our carnal senses so that prayer of our spirit may be directed to the Father…” (De Sermone Domini in Monte, 2.3.11). And what does this heart to heart conversation with God get us?
Well, a couple of things. First, it allows us to consider the situation to see if we have judged it correctly, allows us to spend time in the light which has found its way into our world through the veil (Matt. 27:51) to see if we don’t have a plank obstructing our view before we attempt to remove the splinter from our neighbor’s eye (Matt. 7:5). In this we find a prime example in St. Joseph, who had initially assumed that his betrothed Mary had been unfaithful, as “before they came together she was found to be with the child of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:19). This latter point Joseph could not know, and so notice please how he responds to the situation; he goes to address the matter privately, and does so in a manner that that seeks Mary’s best interest given the situation, as we are told that “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly” (Matt. 1:19). It is precisely because Joseph is responding in love, and notice please he does so to one whom he assumes has grievously offended him at this time and so from his perspective is truly loving his enemy, which Augustine calls the perfection of Christian love (De Sermone Domini in Monte, 1.21.69), and acts patiently, that he realizes through the intervention of an angel, that he has judged the situation wrongly (Matt. 1:20-23). And Joseph, beautifully humble and meek of heart was willing to so be corrected by the word of God sent by the angel that he acted accordingly, taking Mary as his wife, becoming the protector of the Savior (Matt. 1:24).
In Joseph’s reaction to Mary we also speak of another effect of spending time in prayer, in heart to heart conversation with God, and that is that by spending time in prayer, among other things, we begin to see this person as God sees them (cf. De Sermone Domini in Monte, 2.19.66); assessing their shortcomings yes, but charitably, “and this cannot be done unless each one regards as his own the weakness of another, putting up with it in all calmness until he whose welfare he has at heart is freed from it” (ibid., 2.19.65). Notice what Augustine is pointing to here, he is pointing to an imitation of Christ, who took on the infirmity of the human family, identifying with us in order that we might be availed of the cure for sin, i.e. all that separates us from God. The healing of the other must be our primary intention when we set about correcting one another, thus the all important aspect of humility which we have mentioned above. For as members of the Body of Christ, we must have the utmost concern for the health of its members, for if one suffers, we all suffer. In other words, the work of admonition must be done out of solidarity. In this too, the prophet Ezekiel is a prime example; for as the people of Judah were taken away into exile in the year 587 BC, he went with them, and it is precisely because he accompanied them that he was in position to speak the truth to them. So it is with us; if we are to set about correcting one another, we must make every effort to identify with the one whom we correct; to see things as far as possible from where they see them.
My friends to be a member of the Church, the Body of Christ, is to be an instrument of God’s healing in the world. And while it is not the work that many of us would choose to carry out, this work of healing sometimes includes admonishing one another; calling one another to see the Truth precisely so that they may enjoy the life to the full which our God desires for them (John 10:10). As we have seen today, as in all things, this activity must be done in imitation of the Love that is our God, made most beautifully known in the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is he who is the exemplar par excellence of admonishing one another in love, and in order to imitate him in this work we must take care to exercise the virtues of humility, patience, and prayerful discernment, to ensure that both our intention and assessment are in alignment with the will of God. By taking the utmost care in such work, we do all we can to whisk others in the direction of Truth, Jesus Christ, in whom alone we find true happiness and peace.
Lord Jesus Christ, healer of souls, send your Holy Spirit upon us anew this day so that we might be infused with the gifts of the fear of the Lord, that we might approach one another humbly; understanding, that we might in imitation of you identify with one another; wisdom, that having understood we might admonish one another, shaped by your loving will; and counsel, that our voices may be infused with yours so that we, through the love of the Holy Spirit may encourage one another in imitation of you, the perfect image of the Father’s Love, that we to might one day share in the eternal life of happiness which you share, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.