Mass readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Ezekiel 33.7-9 Psalm95.1-2, 6-9 Romans 13.8-10 Matthew 18.15-20
It would be hard to miss the common theme of all our readings today: it’s sin. And among the problems that sin brings into our lives is disruption of relationships. That’s why it is so important that we have an answer to sin: we are called to community, and sin prevents that from genuinely happening. We can have people who all live in a specific geographic space, but that doesn’t mean community exists in the sense of a deep spiritual connection and commitment to each other.
We live in a time of great sin, of moral decline; and when I say that I know many are apt to think in sexual terms, but when Jesus spoke what we hear today, that was just a part of his concern.
We have lived through a difficult time that has undermined our confidence in our institutions, governance, media, even each other on a personal level. A sense of betrayal arising from things said and done that embitters us against each other and leads to less trust and confidence in our ability as a society to face looming challenges.
I fear that the powers of this world are perversely working to make the situation worse, feeding the sense of grievance and fear toward others.
Of course, Christians have an answer to this, to sin, in the forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are the answer, but the acceptance and agreement to these are beyond us when it’s down to another person to ask for mercy and forgiveness, and to seek the renewal of relationship with us and with God. And this is especially difficult when the convictions and prejudices of those who sin against us keep them from recognizing what they are doing.
Now Jesus today lays out a process to resolve cases of injury among the faithful, and it’s easy enough to follow. Yet even Jesus recognizes that one can get to the end of it to find there’s no response from the person who has offended, that he or she is obstinate. Jesus tells us we are to treat that person as though they were a “Gentile and a tax collector.” But what does that mean?
That phrase, “Gentile and tax collector” does give us the answer. Now, it resembles a scriptural phrase we are all familiar with. How many times in the Gospels do we hear of Jesus meeting with, “tax collectors and sinners?”
In today’s gospel, though, he doesn’t use that phrase. Now, we might say, he says ‘gentiles’ because at this point in his ministry the audience is entirely Israelite. For Jews, even today, the designation for non-Jewish people is “gentile” and this is the word for those who belong to the “nations” that exist outside the community of God’s people understood as Israel. Now, for Christians who also understand themselves to be the people of God, we can confidently infer from the principle laid out here that those who sin against us and refuse to be reconciled, they move outside the community of faith as their sin has disrupted their relationship with us.
This doesn’t erase their baptism, it doesn’t mean formal excommunication, but it does mean that we are to adopt a perspective on such people as though they are outside the community and to treat them accordingly – treat them “like” someone who is not a Christian, not a member of the spiritual family of Christ.
Now does that mean shun them, refuse to speak with them? Do we end all connection? Cut them off from ourselves utterly and completely? Do we, as they do in world, “cancel” them?
Well, no. Going back to that other phrase, “tax collectors and sinners” we note that it was most often used in situations when Jesus was engaging them, meeting with them and dining with them. However, Jesus, in meeting with them, sees them as people in urgent need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, who need to be reconciled. He does not regard them as members of God’s people, but rather those he wants to bring into that community. And in the instance of a member of the Church who has sinned against another, we’re talking about bringing them back.
But why doesn’t he just say “sinners” today? Well, that’s because that’s everybody. We’re a community of sinners in need of God’s redeeming, and we’re saints called to spreading the word of God’s mercy far and wide. So, being a sinner doesn’t boot us from the people of God, it’s only in not seeking forgiveness, reconciliation that we are alienated from Christ and his people.
Saint Paul tells us what opposes sin is love. And from that we understand that sin isn’t just the breaking of a rule with a demerit against our name in St. Peter’s ledger. It affects others. Both sin and love exist within relationships; and we have relationships with people, with other persons. We have relationships with neighbours, friends, family, spouses, parents, children, and so on. We have our relationship with God – sin disrupts relationship, it acts in opposition to love. And so, the relationship marked by sin will not be a good one; it will not be capable of true community or communion. And that will have negative consequences for everyone, even those beyond the immediate relationship. Now, don’t confuse this with the idea of social sin. St. John Paul II rejected that idea quite explicitly. We don’t sin against abstractions like society or civilization; we sin against human beings, and against God who is a person too; and it has an ill effect on society.
That’s common sense: if any of us are suffering from a relationship breakdown, it distracts us from all our other relationships. It’s a concern that can weigh us down and rob of us of the energy for others. It can depress us, or make us anxious, and that affliction felt by one member of the body of Christ affects the whole body. It’s why we are called to compassionate care of our brothers and sisters in Christ – the suffering of others affects us; the body of Christ cannot work to its best if it is wracked by pain.
This social dimension to sin is one of the reasons we go to a priest for confession. That sin against another has had a knock-on effect, it’s like a careless boater roaring through the peaceful waters of a small lake, a huge wake trailing that disturbs everything right out to the shoreline. The sacrament of reconciliation isn’t just to absolve sin, but it’s to make the penitent aware of how he has disturbed the general peace, and how he can help restore it.
There is the solution. How frustrating to have someone refuse it! Yet, as I said earlier, the sinner might not even see sin in what he has done, even perversely see it as righteousness.
So, there is an understandable impulse to walk away in despairing resignation, or in anger, or in tired indifference, but that is not what Jesus does. Indeed, see them as gentiles, or even worse, as tax collectors, that is, those who are actively part of the system of oppression, collaborators in the corruption of our civilization by earthly powers. But in seeing them that way, see them with the eyes of Christ – as Jesus when he saw Matthew the tax collector, as Christ when he surveyed the crowd from the cross and asked on their behalf for God’s forgiveness. Christ opposes sin with love, retribution with reconciliation, anger with mercy.
Jesus tells us that where even only two of the faithful are in agreement on what to ask of God, their prayer will be answered. Our petition today should be for the sinner’s return and reconciliation, for the Church’s renewal in love and restoration to true community, remembering that love does no wrong to another; and in the face of sin, we are called to love.