CNS photo/Andree a Campeanu, Reuters)

With love we look out for the other

  • August 28, 2014

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 7 (Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20) 

How much responsibility do we have for the behaviour of others? This is a difficult and delicate question — many of us have encountered the self-righteous busybody intent on running the lives of others. Ezekiel addressed a different but related issue: communal versus individual responsibility. 

In the early stages of Israel’s history, it was believed that God’s “punishments” (as well as blessings) always fell on the people as a whole. In other words, the innocent were punished along with the guilty — there was no private sin. Ezekiel’s teachings — written down during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C. — represented a change of perspective. Elsewhere Ezekiel insisted that no longer would children be punished for the sins of their parents but were accountable for their own behaviour. Ezekiel saw himself as a warner and guide rather than an enforcer. It was his job to alert people to the destructive paths they were travelling and exhort them to change their ways. He certainly would have had no part of an “I’m OK — you’re OK” philosophy. Beyond that, those whom he warned had to make their own choices and accept the consequences. He struggled to keep the exile community on a straight spiritual and moral path and to prevent them from being co-opted by the pagan culture in which they lived. 

His example has something to say to our own time as we struggle through the culture wars with their shrill and uncompromising invective. We cannot force our way of life — or any way of life — on anyone. We have many examples of extremist political and religious groups that seek to do just that, usually with violent and tragic results. Exhortation, challenge, dialogue and inspiration are far more effective tools. It is not at all helpful to close our eyes to instances of injustice, inequality and cruelty, especially by smothering them in rationalizations and ideological justifications. Paul would insist that they are the manifestations of a lethal lack of love. We tend to focus on the negative act itself and lose sight of the bigger picture. All of the things that we normally associate with injustice and sin — theft, murder, adultery and greed — are examples of extreme selfishness. Love is the opposite of selfishness and is characterized by constant sensitivity and concern for the happiness and well-being of others and the common good. Love does no wrong to one’s neighbour, nor will it tolerate the neighbour being victimized by others. As Paul insisted, love is the summation of the law and the one who loves has done what God requires. Lest we misunderstand, biblical love is practical and demanding and is shown in actions rather than mere talk. 

In his teaching on what has been euphemistically called “fraternal correction” (often anything but fraternal) Jesus assumed an ideal community of faithful intent on transformation, change and discipleship. In this sort of community, there would have been a very high trust level and members would not have been afraid to be open and vulnerable with one another. Jesus gave the power to bind to the whole community. His message was simple: do not let resentments and problems simmer and fester or they will destroy you and the community. Whatever you work out among yourselves will be ratified in heaven so get to work now. Problems that have not been confronted and settled will still be binding and entangling even after you pass from this life. 

But the motivation of those seeking to confront an errant member with the consequences of their behaviour must always be love and a desire to win them back. It was not something undertaken alone with some personal sense of mission but a communal effort. Everything was to be above board and in the open — gossip and backbiting were ruled out. Only those humble and vulnerable enough to be corrected themselves dared to correct another. 

The sort of communal spirituality assumed in this passage is not often found in mainstream Christian communities but thrives in 12-step groups. The vision presented in this teaching is both an invitation and challenge to Christians to commit themselves to one another as well as to the faith and to help one another in the process of spiritual growth and change. We are all journeying along the path to God together.