Fr. Roger J. Landry
SS. Peter & Paul Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, A
September 5, 1999
Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be in their midst.” So Jesus said to his disciples two thousand years ago, and so he says to us yet again here today. We are gathered in his name and he is here, in his word and in his real body and blood. The words he’s whispering into our ears this morning are as relevant to us as they were to the disciples who heard them in Galilee, because most of us, like those first disciples, still really haven’t put them completely into action.
Jesus’ words in the Gospel today center on what his disciples throughout the centuries have called fraternal correction, in other words, correcting a brother or sister in the faith. But the term covers correcting a wife or a husband, a son or daughter, a mother or father, a friend, a boss, an employee, a priest or nun, a teacher or a pupil, anyone. Jesus gives each of us this mission to correct another when the brother or sister in the faith needs it. Now this may seem like bad news, that we have to correct each other’s faults. But it is actually part of the Good News. Jesus is counting on each of us, in his name, to help our brothers and sisters in the faith follow in the Lord’s footsteps, to encourage them when they are doing well and to help them with constructive correction when they are veering down dead ends. It is only in doing this, in helping others to stay on the narrow loving trail Jesus blazed for them, that we can truly come together in Jesus’ name and keep him present in our midst.
In order to understand this teaching of Jesus on fraternal correction, and how we are to carry out our mission as disciples, we first have to deal with two false understandings of the teaching. The first misunderstanding concerns those who look at this teaching as a license for ripping other people apart. You know the type of people I’m talking about: the chronic complainers, the incessant naggers, those who really can’t say anything nice about others, but who constantly, often with a “holier-than-thou” attitude, try to tear others down in order to build themselves up. To these people Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Too often in life, the clearest sign that a person is a mess inside is when he or she starts criticizing everyone else. One way we try to forget about our own problems is by focusing on everyone else’s problems, which in our eyes are worse. But Jesus says to all of us who have fallen into this trap: first take the log out of your own eye before trying to take the speck out of others’ eyes. Notice that he does not say: don’t give fraternal correction to others, don’t try to help them remove the speck from their eyes. But rather: first recognize that you have many problems as well, that you’re not perfect, that you, too, need help. Then, when you recognize you need help as well, you can go humbly as a fellow sick person to help your brother or sister. Therefore, the call of Jesus to fraternal correction is not a divine mandate for chronic complainers; rather it is first and foremost a call to personal conversion, to recognizing that we need a lot of help, that Jesus the Divine Doctor can give the help and that out of love we shoud bring that healing message of Jesus to others who need him just as much as we do.
The second misunderstanding about fraternal correction today comes from the modern world’s illusion that the most important thing in human life is to be “nice.” Some say that you really should not correct anyone else, because that would make you seem “judgmental” or “harsh” or “holier-than-thou.” That it is above all important to be civil. To agree to disagree. To live and let live. To mind your own business. We’ll, there’s nothing wrong with being nice or civil, to minding your own business, provided that these are not made absolutes. All of us would rather be surrounded by people who mind their own business than those who are constantly sticking their noses into our business. But oftentimes people use “niceness” or “civility” in order to excuse themselves from giving any Christian constructive criticism to those who really deserve it and need it. To these people, Jesus says, “I’m not nice.” Jesus was simply not “nice” as the world uses the term today. Ask the money changers in the temple, whose tables he overturned and whom he whipped out of the temple. Ask the Scribes and the Pharisees, whom he called hypocrites, whitewashed sepulchers, broods of vipers. Calling the most famous teachers of your generation full of dead bones and all kinds of filth is not civil or nice. Jesus came to save the money changers, the Scribes and the Pharisees, however; to do that, though, he had to first let them know that they were veering from the Gospel, veering from love, veering from him. In the same way, we have to risk being considered uncivil or no longer nice if a brother or sister needs our help. What if we don’t? God is clear to the prophet Ezekiel, as we read in the first reading: “If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he [the wicked man] shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” In other words, giving fraternal correction to a brother or sister who needs it is not an optional thing we may or may not do depending upon whether we feel like it; rather it is an obligation, a mission Christ gives us, on the basis of which we will be judged.
If this seems harsh, it’s really not, because our consciences will convict us before Jesus does. This will be clear from the following example. When I was a freshman in college, there was a guy named John in one of my classes whose roommate died tragically one night. A few weeks after the tragedy, this student was still extraordinarily depressed. I approached one of his friends, who told me why. John, who turned out to be Catholic, used to watch his roommate go out every night and return very late in the morning. He would sleep all morning, never going to class. He was neglecting all of his responsibilities. Occasionally John would find condoms on his roommate’s desk. John knew that whatever his roommate was into was not good. He thought he should have a conversation with his roommate, to see what was going on, to try to help him, but he concluded, “It’s none of my business. He’s an adult and can make decisions for himself.” Well, one night his roommate didn’t come back. John thought it was just more irreponsibility on his roommate’s part, so he went to class, expecting his roommate to be in bed asleep when he returned later that morning. But his roommate hadn’t returned. A few hours later, he received a telephone call from the University Police saying that his roommate had died in an altercation at a gay bar the previous evening. John was devastated. His roommate was a good guy who was heading down the wrong path, but even though John suspected he was in some trouble, he never said a word. And John found it very difficult to forgive himself for failing to try to help him. Even though he might have been rebuffed, and even though the rooming situation might have become tense, John thought it would have been worth it, so that his roommate might have lived. He had been “nice,” but he really hadn’t done what Christian love of his roommate demanded. John rightly felt at least partially responsible for his roommate’s death. This is exactly what God said would happen to Jeremiah, or to anyone of us, if we failed to warn a brother or sister in need.
Jesus call us to love our neighbors, and sometimes love requires correcting them, even if it is not “nice” to do so. Love is often very difficult, but Jesus never said that loving someone was easy. After all, his love for us led to his crucifixion and death. In his death, Jesus ultimately convinced us of sin, that we could actually try to kill God in our own sinful actions. And this was the greatest fraternal correction of all. It is in this context of love that everything he says about fraternal correction must be placed. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “Owe no debt to anyone except the debt to love one another. He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the love.” St. Augustine, referring to this passage within the context of fraternal correction said, “If you remain silent, remain silent for love; if you speak, speak out of love; if you correct, correct out of love; if you forgive, forgive out of love.”
So fraternal correction is not meant to win an argument, but to win a brother or sister. The point is not that one be right and the other wrong, but that both win by being brought into greater loving communion with Jesus. That is why Jesus said that in making a fraternal correction, we should go to our brother or sister in private and make the correction. This way it stays between the two of you. Too many people, today, however, delight in spreading others’ faults around through gossip and other means. The media and the talk shows have practically made a profession out of it. It is not to be this way with Jesus’ disciples. Humbly we should go one-on-one. If it doesn’t work in private, try it with a couple other people the person trusts and who can be trusted to keep things in private. Hopefully the added witness and love shown by the small number can convince the person to correct his or her behavior and ask for help. But if the person persists in wrongdoing, you should go to the Church, to those who can join you in prayer, and if the particular offense warrants it, to the hierarchy which can lovingly give the person an appropriate ecclesiastical admonition to warn of the eternal danger he or she is risking. The Church does this whenever she lovingly tells people clearly what is sinful conduct, as she does with abortion and euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, drug use and many other types of self-destructive and socially-harmful, sinful behavior. Many would wish the Church would remain silent on these issues, but the Church cannot, because she does not have the mission to be considered “nice,” but to carry out Christ’s love in the world, and, like any parent here would be able to see, the Church’s maternal love sometimes have to be “tough love,” correcting the behavior of those who might not see the error of their ways. Each member of the Church is called to give the same love when others need it.
The flip-side of this teaching, of course, is that when someone comes to us with a Christian fraternal correction, we should be grateful, even if the person might be slightly off the mark. It shows us that that person cares enough about us to try to help us become better. We all need help along the way. We all need people to help us. These are our real friends, the ones who love us so much that they’ll risk their friendship with us to try to give us the help we need. Our real friends are not those who flatter us, or who continue to “enable” us to do things we know we shouldn’t do, but those who tell us, in love, that we’re heading down the wrong track. We should see Jesus in them, patiently forming us into the person he calls us to be.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.” The whole purpose of fraternal correction in Jesus’ name is to allow for communion with each other and communion with Jesus, a communion destined for heaven, but a communion that sin tries to destroy. Communion is only possible, therefore, when we start with conversion, which is why we begin every Mass with calling to mind our sins, because Jesus came to call sinners, not the self-righteous. This conversion is made easier and deeper when others patiently and lovingly help us to see the errors of our ways. As humble, corrected sinners striving to be saints, set free by the very same sacrifice we’re about to share, we can approach and receive Jesus, who will no longer merely be in our midst, but literally inside of us as well, continuing his healing work within us, so that one day, please God, we will stand in his midst forever, alongside all those we have loved enough to correct along the way and alongside all of those who loved us enough to correct us. This is our Christian mission. May God help us to carry it through. God bless you!