WORD MADE FLESH
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 7, 2014
Ezekiel 33.7-9 | Psalm 95 | Romans 13.8-10 | Matthew 18.15-20
August 25, 2014
We all know the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and, if necessary, use words." What we often forget, or choose not to notice, is that this aphorism explicitly tells us that sometimes it's necessary to use words, and the appropriate time for them is usually when it's most uncomfortable to speak.
This is what we find in the reading from Ezekiel. God tells the prophet that he is to warn his wayward brothers their sins will lead to death - and if he doesn't warn them, their blood is on his hands.
'If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.'
In the Gospel reading, Jesus also commands us to tell our fellow Christians when they have sinned against us, and to even get the Church authorities involved if they remain obstinate. Even the Gospel Acclamation says God "entrust[ed] the message of reconciliation to us," and reconciliation is only possible when someone realizes that they're at fault.
The blunt fact is that most people are defensive of themselves and of their sins. Think of having a friend ask what you think about the fact that they're going to have an abortion, or seeing someone leave their dogs in a hot car with the windows rolled up, or being a parent beginning to see self-destructive habits in her children.
People often get confrontational and aggressive when you challenge their decisions, and, worse, often aren't open to changing their minds or habits. The reading from St. Paul reminds us never to do anything that isn't out of love. But rebuking a loved one can end a relationship, and Jesus sadly acknowledges that, at times, it may be necessary to be estranged from your sinful brother. (A family estrangement is ultimately what excommunication really is.)
This is often the hardest part of ministry: Being emotionally invested in someone who stubbornly refuses to stop doing stupid things that hurt themselves. This is why many priests and social workers burn out from emotional exhaustion.
The rest of the reading from Ezekiel is so important. God tells the prophet that, if he warns his brother about his sin, and his brother doesn't heed his words, "they shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life." Your responsibility doesn't go beyond announcing the truth; you aren't obligated to compel anyone to accept it.
Free will is a mysterious, beautiful and terrifying thing, whereby God gives people the opportunity to reject love so that a space can be created where love might exist. God doesn't compel anyone against their will, and the Psalm for today has him begging his people not to "harden their hearts" against him. If God does not compel people against their will, certainly we aren't required to, either.
It is hard not to feel a responsibility for those we love, but we should remember what Pope St. John XXIII prayed every night before he went to sleep: "Lord, it's your Church. I'm going to bed now." He realized he could only do so much, and entrusted the rest to our Heavenly Father.
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