Matthew 18: 15-20
Uncompromising words about sin drawn from both the Old and New Testaments weave together the readings for mass this Sunday. While all religious movements through history have been accompanied by moral teachings concerning sin and forgiveness, Judaism, Christianity which emerged from it, and all of the Christian churches which then stemmed from the Catholic Church elevated this sort of moral instruction by relating it to the personal rapport that each person individually and the entire believing community collectively have with God.
Sin is more than a violation of a rule then, it is an act which wounds the unity and charity that should exist between all people, and between all people and God. It is especially tragic when sin marks the relationship between those who believe in Christ.
To this end, in the first reading we see Ezekiel the prophet being admonished as to his solemn duties as a prophet, and being told that he will be held responsible for those whom he does not try to dissuade from their sins. In the epistle Paul in turn reminds us that Christians must be careful to avoid sin and to observe the commandments, which are summed up in the saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Even the Psalmist joins in the chorus, faithfully reporting the warning of the Lord: “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the desert. There your ancestors tested me; they tried me though they had seen my works”.
Each of these texts delivers a stern notice with regard to our responsibility not only to avoid sin, but to help others recover from their sin and shun it in the future. This is the challenging point of our Church’s teaching this Sunday: everyone knows that we are to avoid sin, but we are called to do much more than that; we have a corresponding duty to help others be reconciled to the Lord after sinning—and that is asking a lot!
In the Gospel St. Matthew takes what we have heard in the earlier readings a step further: he describes our Lord’s preaching on the subject of sins committed by fellow Christians and the efforts toward their conversion which every believer is required to make. A desire for reconciliation within the community is expressed by Christ which makes it clear that the whole Church bears responsibility in this respect: “If he refuses to listen to [two or three witnesses], tell the Church”. This is a lofty calling, but one which must be taken up by every baptized disciple of Jesus.
If that is not challenging enough, next we consider what the Lord says about those who do not “listen to the Church”: he tells us: “…treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector”. Now in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does speak sharply of the Gentiles (10:5), yet he also heals the son of the pagan centurion (8:5-13) and the daughter of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Further, Jesus tells his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations…” (28:19), naturally including the Gentiles.
This appears to teach us that if we are to be faithful to the example of the Lord then we must extend opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness even to those who at first rebuff our efforts at healing. If we do so consistently—and out of love for Christ who forgave even his persecutors—then we can be sure that with the Lord’s blessing our efforts will eventually succeed, and will contribute to the growth in unity and charity of the living Body of Christ which is the Church.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.