Sunday, September 7, 2014

Correcting the Sinner

Ezekiel in the Sistine Chapel

These readings give us some basic rules for how to live the Christian life. Being a Christian is easy in theory, but very difficult in practice. Being a Christian is more than just being a nice guy, it requires us to have a deep and abiding care and concern for our brothers and sisters, especially those in sin. It's this concern for the sinner that we need to examine today. So we're going to look first at the first reading, then we're going to look at the gospel, then we'll look briefly at the second reading.

In our first reading, from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God is laying out for Ezekiel his responsibilities to the community. Ezekiel was another of the Old Testament prophets sent to warn Israel away from their sins. He calls Ezekiel to be a sort of watchman for the community, to call people away from their sins when he sees it, because God says to Ezekiel, "You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me."

And God doesn't just put Ezekiel in this position of watchman, but he also attaches serious consequences to it, because he goes on to tell Ezekiel, "If I tell the wicked, 'O wicked one, you shall surely die,' and you do do not speak out dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death." We have to make sure not to misunderstand God here. When God tells the wicked "You shall surely die," he is not saying "I'm going to kill you." Rather, he is trying to warn them of the natural consequences of their actions. It's like if I tell you not to touch the stove because you'll get burned. I'm not saying "I'm going to burn you," but rather you're just warning them of the natural consequences of their actions. Similarly, when God tells us that the consequence of sin is death, he's warning us of natural consequences, not punitive ones.

Ezekiel is not allowed to be indifferent to the sins of his brother, and neither are we. If we turn our attention to the Gospel, Jesus too is trying to make us responsible for our brothers and sisters. In this section of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is giving some specialized instructions to his disciples on how they're supposed to operate as a Church before he goes into Jerusalem to suffer his Passion. So here, in the midst of giving important instructions about how we are to seek the lost sheep and how we are supposed to forgive without limit, he gives very pragmatic instructions on how to deal with erring members of our Church. First, you correct him in private, then you bring along some witnesses, then you bring it before the whole Church.

Now, Jesus is talking about big sins, not little annoyances. He's not instructing us along this path for when the person behind you is breathing too loud in church, but rather when you see that your fellow Christian is starting to turn away from God by his actions, when through their actions they are separating themselves from God and his Church. That's when we call to correction. But this sort of correction requires that we see each other at church as true brothers and sisters, and not just people I sit next to every Sunday and never talk to. We have to care about each other, we have to be invested in each other, and then we are in a position to call to correction if the need arises. Cain's infamous defense of "Am I my brother's keeper?" didn't cut it in the beginning, and it doesn't cut it now, because yes, you are your brother's keeper!

But what happens if, after being called to correction, our brother or sister still doesn't return to the right path? Jesus allows for this very unfortunate course of action, and he instructs us to "treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." His initial meaning is clear: treat him as one outside of your intimate group, because by his actions he has separated himself from your group. That's plain enough, but let's look deeper. How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? A couple weeks ago we saw him heal the Gentile woman's son, and we know that Jesus had dinner and stayed with Zacchaeus the tax collector. So maybe there's a deeper meaning here.

If I'm supposed to treat my brothers and sisters who are obstinately sinning as Gentiles and tax collectors, what I think Jesus means is that I am still called to love them, but I don't trust myself to them the same way I trust myself to my friends and fellow Christians. Jesus had dinner with tons of folks, he would talk with anybody, he loved everybody, but only his trusted friends got to see the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden, only his trusted friends received the specialized instructions about the parables. Jesus loved everyone, even the Gentiles and tax collectors, but he didn't trust himself to everyone the same way.

Even the Pope goes to Confession!

St. Paul in our second reading gives us some more guidance in this area, in his letter to the Romans. He started by telling us that our job is simply to love one another. Whatever commandments you know, whatever commandments you can think of, they are all summarized in the commandment to love one another. Love is the thing we most fundamentally owe each other. Love does no evil to the neighbor. It is love that calls us to correct our brother or sister when they sin, but love is still our attitude towards them when they are obstinate in their sin.

But let's turn the tables for just a moment. What if I find myself on the receiving end of this correction, whether from a fellow Christian or from God speaking to me in my own prayer? If I find myself in sin, then that's why we have the beautiful sacrament of Confession. The reality is that I am always in need of Confession, I always have something in my life that is pulling me away from God's love, and I need to apologize and receive forgiveness for it.

So two things today: Don't be afraid to gently call your brother or sister in Christ to correction, when you see them going astray. Love demands it. And go to Confession, for the times when you yourself fall away from the path God has called you to.

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