If He Listens… You Have Won Back A Brother

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Ezekiel 33:7-9 – Romans 13:8-10 – Matthew 18:15-20.

Today’s readings are on the theme of reconciliation. The dictionary definition of ‘reconciliation’ is ‘the re-establishment of friendly relations’ with people. The function of reconciliation is to restore peace and harmony to a relationship. In the Gospel, Our Lord outlines a sequence for the Apostles (the leaders of the Church) to follow when tackling the thorny problem of fraternal correction. Is that sequence relevant for us today? Of course it is! In Our Lord’s sequence there are three logical steps:

  1. Dare to Reconcile
  2. Dare to Discipline
  3. Dare to Pray

Dare to Reconcile

The first step in dealing with a perceived offence is to make a discreet step towards reconciliation. This is done by the person offended against going to see the offender about it on his own; if your brother does something wrong [the original text states here ’against you’], go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves (Mt 18:15). This initial step has to be taken gently. It precludes disclosing matters to others and publicly rebuking the offender when he has yet to be spoken to privately. Why? Because the offender is first and foremost our brother or sister in Christ. It is also essential to maintain confidentiality from the outset,  because people are sometimes unaware that they have done something that offends. If the attempt to effect reconciliation is made public at this stage, then the parties involved may take up entrenched positions: the Christian must not quarrel, but must be kind to all (2Tim 2:24).

It’s important to let the accused person have his say in order to discover the likelihood of his being innocent, guilty or the accusation not provable. He has to be given the opportunity to defend himself. If he isn’t allowed to give his side of the story, then the division between the parties will probably deepen. If the object of the dispute happens to be personal, then the chances of reconciliation may evaporate unless both accuser and accused watch what they say. Taking this initial step is in itself an act of charity, and is a prerequisite for making a material offering to God: if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:23f). The matter must not be left to fester.

If the first step fails, and an unwillingness on the part of the offender to reconcile remains, then the second step is for the person trying to effect reconciliation to make another attempt, this time accompanied by one or two witnesses. This is to make it clear that the one seeking reconciliation genuinely wants it, and that the one being approached to reconcile is a loved brother or sister in Christ who is wanted back in the fold, in the Church. The presence of witnesses is necessary to ensure that the matter under dispute is explored objectively rather than subjectively.

If the second step fails, then the third step is for the matter to be reported to the local Church community. Why? Because if the issue is so serious that it cannot be sorted out at ground level, then the community needs to be alerted in order to pray together to find a solution as a matter of urgency. Scandal-mongering needs to be prevented from happening among the faithful (who are not in possession of the full facts) and potentially from spreading into wider society. Our Lord’s purpose in setting out these three steps is to keep sin and division in check before they have the chance to wound the faith community, the Church. All three steps must be followed in love. St. Paul reminds us in the Second Reading that love is the one thing that cannot hurt our neighbour.

Dare to Discipline

Disciplining (in the sense of imposing one or more sanctions) is only to be actioned when the three steps to reconciliation have been attempted and have failed. Jesus said: if he [the brother in Christ] refuses to listen to the Church, treat him as you would treat a Gentile or a tax collector (Mt 18:17). To understand what Our Lord meant, we need to know how Jews at the time of Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Although the Temple had a special court for Gentiles, Jews avoided contact and intermarriage with Gentiles. Tax collectors, whether Jew of Gentile, were reviled because of their financial exploitation of the people and their collaboration with the Roman occupation. The point of discipline is to separate out the unrepentant offender from the faithful, to quarantine him until he is willing to reconcile. He is not banished from the Church, and the door is left ajar for him to return. After all, Christ came to call sinners to repentance (Mt 9:13; Lk 5:32). It is not the healthy that need the doctor, but the sick (Mt 9:12 Lk 5:31).

 

The Church witnesses to the love and mercy of God. Just like the prophet Ezekiel, who was entrusted with the mission to call the people to repentance, the Church is tasked with preaching repentance to the world. With her arms always open wide to accept repentant sinners, the Church’s power to bind and loose is given by Our Lord in the context of reconciliation. It’s the duty of the faithful to act in love and mercy towards each other, and to be humble enough to be eager to reconcile.

Dare to pray

The prayer of the Church is powerful and enhances her unity. The power of the Church to effect reconciliation relies heavily upon her communal prayer: If two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted…for where two or three are gathered in My Name, I shall be there (Mt 18:20). If an acknowledged sinner refuses to accept and tackle his guilt in response to the humble request of the Church, then he is to be excluded until he is ready to repent and be reconciled. He is not to be abandoned but, rather, to continue to be lifted to God in prayer because heaven rejoices over one repentant sinner (Lk 15:10). Surely, Correction is not easy. It is always challenging, and usually a risk of losing what little friendship is left. As a community of faith, we have to do our best to correct, and so to save one another in love from falling into sin and error. This has to be done via strict observance of the procedure laid out by Our Lord. This procedure reveals that correction is not an exercise in proving the wrong to be wrong, and the right to be right. It is rather an exercise that seeks to motivate, to inspire, to love, and to find what seems to have been lost.

Finally, how disheartening it is for us to be offended against. We can be tempted to walk away from someone because we do not want to be hurt again and again. If, on the other hand, we have hurt someone, whether wittingly or unwittingly, we can be tempted to tell ourselves that we are in the right and they are in the wrong, or that our sin isn’t as bad as they are making it out to be! When we are pushed by God’s grace to go to Confession and embrace reconciliation, how often the devil immediately swoops in to steal that grace. How often have you felt as though you are swimming along in peace and harmony, when all of a sudden you remember an ugly moment that plunges you into feelings of rejection and distress? It is then that you need to immerse yourself in prayer for healing and deliverance. Make an effort to give the peace of God another chance to come to you and fill you today. Never forget these comforting words: if you O Lord should mark our guilt, who would survive? (Ps 130:3). May the Holy Spirit continue to enliven your soul and spirit (cf. Heb 4:12) towards praying and working for harmony with others. Amen. God bless you.