Thursday, September 18, 2014

Homily - 23rd Ordinary Sunday (Year A)

23rd Ordinary Sunday (Year A)

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9            Second Reading: Romans 13:8-10           Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:15-20


One summer evening after a festal hour of singing and dancing the whole tribe sat around the chieftain. He began to speak to them: “If you have quarreled with a brother and you have decided to kill him,” as he spoke he looked directly at the one of the group, “first sit down, fill your pipe and smoke it. When you have finished smoking you will realize that death is too severe a punishment for your enemy for the fault he has committed, and you decide to give a good whipping instead. Then you fill your pipe a second time and smoke it to the bottom. By then you feel that the lashes will be too much and instead some simple words of reproof would be sufficient. Then when the third time you have filled your pipe and smoked it to the finish, you will be better convinced that the better thing to do is going to that brother and embrace him.”

Today is the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the Scripture Readings of today we hear that the Lord God reminds us of our responsibility for one another and that we simply cannot restrain to ourselves, or just keep quite, or be indifferent, when someone in our community is doing wrong. In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we hear God appointing Ezekiel as watchman over his people to dissuade them from wicked ways and instigate them to return to God. Ezekiel was personally responsible to call sinners to conversion. Regardless of the people's response or lack of response, the prophet needed to keep his integrity by speaking out and challenging them to repentance. The Gospel Reading from St. Matthew deals with the same theme of the responsibility of fraternal correction. Jesus stipulates a process for dealing with a community member who sins against another person. He lays down the guidelines for fraternal correction in the Christian community. At the same time he tells us of his own presence when the community meets in prayer in his name. St. Paul in the Second Reading from his Letter to the Romans, joins the rabbinical debate about what really is law of all laws. What is the most basic law on which all others hinge? He reminds the Roman Christians that the Lord’s Law is summed up in this saying, viz. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them to avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love.

The Prophet Ezekiel was active at the time of the Babylonian captivity. His preaching underwent a perceptible evolution as he grappled with the refusal of the nation to repent of its infidelities and its pending destruction. His focus increasingly was on individual responsibility. In today’s First Reading we see that God appoints Prophet Ezekiel as a watchman over the people of Israel to dissuade them from wicked ways and instigate them to return to Him. Ezekiel was to be personally responsible to call sinners to conversion. God tells him to warn the sinner of the certain damnation that will follow if he does not mend his ways. If the Prophet does not do so, the sinner will die in his sins, but the Prophet will have to share in his damnation. On the other hand if the Prophet gives the warning to the sinner and the latter still dies in his sins, the Prophet will not bear any responsibility for that man’s damnation. Regardless of the people's response or lack of response, the Prophet needed to keep his integrity by speaking out and challenging them to repentance.
The reading reminds us that we as God’s people have the great responsibility placed on us by God. To our ears it may sound surprising, even unjust, that the Lord, through the Prophet Ezekiel, will hold us responsible for the sins of others if we fail to warn them of their errors. We will be saved only if we do all we can, to turn others from evil ways.

The Gospel Reading of today taken from St. Matthew deals with the same theme of the responsibility of fraternal correction. Jesus  stipulates a process for dealing with a community member who sins against another person. He lays down the guidelines for fraternal correction in the Christian community.
In today’s passage we see Jesus proposing a four-step procedure for dealing with a community member who has done 'something wrong.' The whole thrust of the passage is that we should all work towards reconciliation rather than punishment.
The first step is for the two people concerned to solve the issue among themselves privately. If it works out at that level, that is the ideal situation. And Jesus commends, “You have won back your brother.” To win back here is a Jewish technical term for conversion. It indicates in the Christian spirit a change of heart.
We have the second step, in case the offender refuses to listen to his 'brother,' then one or two others are to be brought in as confirming witnesses. Again, care should be taken to keep the issue at as low a profile as possible without any unnecessary publicity. This is a more serious step and again it is hoped that the matter will be resolved by it.
Then there is the third step, if neither of the first two steps works, then the matter is to be reported to the church. The ‘church’ here is understood as the local community, because during the time of Jesus this term was not in use. The approach to the church is to go beyond all legalism. The personal relationship can be rectified in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship. It is understood that while meeting in the community it is not the judgment but fraternal love that brings the transformation.
If all the above steps fail to produce any result, then the fourth and final step is taken as the last resort. The offender then is to be treated as a gentile or a tax collector. It generally meant that the person was to be shunned totally by the community as a hopeless and incorrigible person. He is no longer a part of the community. But this sounds rather strange coming directly from the mouth of Jesus, who was kind, gentle and forgiving to all. So, treating him too with love and affection as Jesus did, he can still be won over. Here, the intention of excommunication is not punishment, but rather to bring the person so cast out to ask for forgiveness.
Immediately after this Jesus speaks about power to bind and loose - “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” These words indicate that the community has the power, given to it by God, to make a judgment on who is fit to belong to the community of the believers. It is a necessary power to preserve the integrity of the community as a witness to the Gospel.
Jesus further tells the disciples - “If two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” Jesus here indicates that when all things fail, they should come together in love and truth to pray to God, who will answer them in His own way with Divine wisdom and foresight. This is both a tremendous gift and also a great responsibility. He also assures them of his presence in their midst.

Ezekiel’s prophetic duty as a watchman calling an erring people to conversion and the Gospel model of fraternal correction acquire deeper meaning in Paul’s assertion, in the Second Reading of today that love is the fulfillment of the law and that we all carry 'the debt of mutual love.' The debt of mutual love is ongoing and can never be fully repaid. Thus there is no substitute for the Christian law of fraternal charity. St. Paul tells the early Christians in Rome to avoid getting into debt, with an exception of the debt of mutual love. He encourages them to love each other, for that way they fulfill the law. Here St Paul picks up and reiterates one of the great innovations of Jesus' teaching - “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the most basic law on which all others hinge. Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbor; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments. St. Paul mentions here four commandments, not to commit adultery, not to kill, not to seal, not to covet, and refers to whatever other commandments there may be. Actually, it is our Christian principle of 'loving our neighbors as ourselves' that calls for our concern and responsibility towards our neighbors. And one of the ways we can show our love for one another is to offer guidance and corrections.

Today Jesus places on us the painful obligation of fraternal love in the watchful love we show towards others. And very few actually have the courage to do what Jesus tells us in today's gospel - "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone...". Even fewer will go out of their way, like the Prophet Ezekiel about whom we hear in the First Reading, to try to correct someone about a fault that does not affect them directly. To approach this painful duty of fraternal correction, it entails many qualities - courage, compassion, patience, gentleness, humility, sincerity, reverence, a desire to preserve the other's good name, prudence delicacy, tact, mutual dialogue, true listening and mercy. The Readings tell us that we will be held responsible for the silence at our unwillingness to speak.
Again, Jesus' teaching about brotherly correction recalls to our mind his other teaching, that we should not try to remove the sprinter in the brother's eye before we remove the log in our own. We need to constantly strive to correct our own mistakes in order to have the moral authority to help others come out of their mistakes. This includes the humility also to graciously receive correction when it is meted out to us. So, how do we go about it?
Once a man approached St. Francis of Assisi and said to him, "Brother Francis, I am in a quandary. In the Bible it says we should rebuke sinners, but I see people sinning all the time. I don't feel like I should go around rebuking everybody." St. Francis thought for a moment and then said, "What you must do is 'live in such a way that your life rebukes the sinner.' How you act will call others to repentance." One may have doubt about it, or may even say - Is it that so easy to do?
Let us then today, look into our own conduct in relation to this law of brotherly love. Have we really tried to help our fellow-men on the road to heaven? Have we given them the good example of a truly Christian way of living? Have we offered advice and encouragement when it was needed, and correction in private where that was possible? If so, we have gained our brother and it is a mark of heroic love. Let us take some time to reflect on our responsibility towards God and our community. Let us reflect on how we will account to God for the actions of those around us, be it our parents, our brothers or sisters, our children, our relatives, our neighbors, our co-workers, our peers, all of those who's life we touch. You and I - by the way we live - are called to be watchmen, and to build a community of love. And this is the Good News of today.


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