September 4, 2011 — Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Our choices have consequences. Whether it’s the ideas we think about or the feelings we indulge or the words we speak or the actions we carry out, results follow our decisions. In many cases, the consequences are positive; sometimes they are not.
In our contemporary society, there seems to be an attempt on the part of many people to deny this truth. We make choices we know are wrong, but we want to avoid all the negative consequences that result, so we claim that we’re the victim of circumstances or psychological forces we cannot control. It’s society’s fault or we’re not to blame because we didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. Whatever excuse is handy, we try to avoid accepting responsibility for whatever wrong we’ve done.
But God doesn’t see it that way. The major thrust of the First Reading and the Gospel today is how we should deal with a wrongdoer – firmly but gently. The prophet Ezekiel proclaimed the Lord’s message that “the wicked shall die for his guilt.” And Jesus instructs the apostles that one who sins against a fellow Church member may have to be excluded from the Christian fellowship.
But there would be no point for God through his prophets and through his Son to tell us how to deal with the wicked if he does not consider sin to be serious. So let there be no doubt that God recognizes wickedness on the part of humans, and our wickedness does have consequences. If we’re the one who sins, what should our response be? To repent immediately – no need to wait for Lent. And repentance does not mean feeling sorry for sin, although that’s usually a part of the process. It means changing our ways, so we begin to follow God’s law and his will for our life.
We often find it easier, and definitely more fun, to spot another’s sins than our own. And the comfortable thing to do when we see someone else sinning to ignore it or to gossip instead of doing something about it. Yet, Ezekiel tells us, steering them in the right direction is exactly what we are called to do. If we see someone committing sin, the guilt is his or hers. But we share the blame if we do not try to persuade that person to change his sinful way. Our instinct might be to say that it’s not our business. However, the implied answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “Yes” (Genesis 4). Even stronger is the truth that all the baptized are fellow members of the Body of Christ.
That’s where “firmly but gently” comes in. Only rarely does it help to go up to a person on the street and announce, “You are wicked, and you will die in your sin.” It’s when you have a relationship with a person and can explain over time how that person’s behavior violates God’s laws and what the consequences are, that real change may result. You can point the right direction, but you cannot control the other person, and he has the right to make his own choices.
The same principle is involved in Jesus’ instructions to his followers. If one sins against another, the one sinned against should first try to restore their relationship privately. If that doesn’t work, he should try again with one or two witnesses. Only then, if the sinner refuses to acknowledge fault and willingness to change, should the matter be made public. But if the sinner obstinately refuses to repent, he should finally be excluded from the Church fellowship. The purpose of such a dramatic action is not punishment but amendment.
Through all this, the one sinned against must forgive, no matter whether or not the sinner exhibits repentance. Christ makes that very clear in the Lord’s Prayer, “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There’s no way around that, and we need to examine ourselves and our attitude toward those who have hurt us. There are many who block receiving forgiveness by refusing to offer it to others.
How does this affect us as Christian stewards? There are many aspects to stewardship but one it’s easy to overlook is that we are accountable to God for the decisions we make and how we use the gifts he gives us. The Lord takes the guilt of the wicked seriously. We can use the time, talent, and treasure he has entrusted to us in sinful ways, and we should be grateful, not resentful, to our fellow Christian steward who takes the trouble to offer a kind correction.
Equally, we can use the time, talent, and treasure at our disposal for the glory of God. One way we can exercise our stewardship is to make ourselves available to those who need warning and take the effort to offer that warning in a way they can understand and accept. That takes generous concern on our part, for we may indeed experience rebuff. But that’s the path of an accountable steward, who knows that if he does not warn the sinner, “the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”