Sunday, September 7, 2014
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 18:15-20 (New American Bible, Revised Edition)
15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.19 Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Once again there is a long gap between last Sunday’s Gospel and today’s fragment: Matthew’s chapter 17 and the first fourteen verses of chapter 18. So, we have missed important sections, not only the Transfiguration, but also the healing of a boy with a demon, Jesus’ second announcement of his passion, as well as a number of practical words of advice. And, once again, the context is vital to our understanding of the guidelines Jesus proposes to the disciples for organizing community life and solving the problems that will, unavoidably, arise in the normal course of events. Just before today’s passage, we can read the parable of “the Lost Sheep” in which Jesus underlines the importance of the “little ones.” This could be a reference to children or other less important members of the community. In case they “go astray” they deserve attention, care and acceptance, even to the point of leaving the rest of the flock alone in order to bring them back. And just after today’s reading, the Gospel presents another parable, that of “the unforgiving servant” in which the need for mutual forgiveness is presented as the condition of receiving the heavenly Father’s pardon and mercy. Matthew tends to be extremely objective concerning the group of the first followers of Jesus. Even if they have been called to be “perfect just as their heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), the evangelist knows quite well that sin will always be present among them. Hence, Jesus’ words about the brother who sins and commits faults. We should understand that the two parables basically concern his followers, those belonging to the group of believers, the chosen ones, who must also hear the message of repentance and pardon. The steps to be taken are not those of criticism, gossip or silent rejection, but rather dialogue and understanding, in order to win over the brother who has gone astray. However, again, realism imposes its rules. We must accept the possibility of stubbornness and obstinacy. In such cases, we will have to recur to two witnesses, or even the whole church, in the process. All this may lead, unfortunately, to the drastic measures of the exclusion and isolation of the “sick” member of the Christian body, and we know quite well what that meant in the past centuries of our Christian history. In a roundabout way, that also leads to another positive dimension, the common responsibility of the Church, called and united in Christ, as well as an understanding of the lost member being a Gentile or a tax collector. These were precisely some of the lost sheep whom Jesus came to seek and offer hope, pardon and salvation. This, in turn, leads to an even deeper discovery, the importance of a community of believers whose common prayer is rewarded with the gift of Jesus’ presence among them, and the certitude that their decisions, made in Jesus’ name, possess the authority which comes from him.
As I read the text of Ezekiel, John Donne’s words came to my mind: “No man is an island entire of itself… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The prophet underlines our responsibility concerning the sins of “the wicked” and our obligation to dissuade the wicked from their evil ways. We could call that “solidarity in salvation.” In a sense it anticipates the message we read in the Gospel: we are all involved in the fate, for good or bad, of humankind, but especially are we involved “in the same boat,” in our long and hard voyage of following Jesus. Sharing in the spirit of the Gospel when we succeed in living according to Jesus’ teaching, and sharing also in the failures and shortcomings in that same endeavour, can be a sign of our belonging to the universal Church. Do we rejoice and weep with one another, or do we think that we can live our Christian faith as if we were sailing solo instead of being members of the same crew? Do we try to help those around us who fail, or do we remain indifferent, or even worse, do we limit ourselves to criticizing or gossiping? Are we humble enough to accept from others their criticism and advice? Are we able to pray together for someone who is going through a difficult time?
Pray for those who are considered lost sheep: that they may find the word of comfort and help to turn to Jesus, accept his word and respond in fidelity to the calling of the Good Shepherd. Pray for the ability to accept humbly from others the remarks and criticism that your mistakes, failures and shortcomings may deserve; and give thanks for the light those words may shed on your life in order to mend your ways.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, so we will miss the following passage of Matthew’s Gospel (18:21-35) corresponding to the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The parable of the unforgiving servant adds serious nuances to today’s readings. Read it again and try to understand Jesus’ message of mutual forgiveness and mercy from our own heart as a condition to receive God’s pardon. Think of someone you should pardon or from whom you should ask for pardon. Try to take some step, even if it seems humble, in order to follow Jesus’ advice.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain
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