23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33,7-9; Romans 13,8-10 Mt18,15-20
It takes one to jeopardize all; it may take the efforts of all for one to recover.
This simple principle applies to so many aspects of human life.
For more than half a year now, we see how this is behind all the health protocols implemented worldwide. Social distancing has been required for the common good. Some even had to be put in quarantine for at least two weeks. Seclusion is not for exclusion but eventual inclusion.
On this 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, we reflect on the dynamics of community building, especially in times of disruptions by failures. Co-responsibility calls for fraternal correction. The Prophet Ezekiel exhorts that it is a God-given mandate to be accountable for the well-being of one another. All the readings illustrate how the simple principle operates in our spiritual, moral, and communal life.
I remember the story of the master chain-builder who sees to it that each link he crafts is strong for in it relies on the strength of the whole chain. He keeps in mind that the chain is only strong as its weakest link.
In the Gospel, the Lord tells of how all means have to be exhausted to correct a misbehaving member of the community. We see how the Lord exhorts to the use of gentle compassion rather than the harsh judgmental approach. At first, fraternal correction should be done in private. If still unresolved, a few may be brought into the conversation which then may progress to the communal level as needed. Note that at all levels the objective is to win back the person who strayed. Just like in the pandemic quarantine, seclusion is never for exclusion but always with a view to eventual inclusion. As with the Prophet Ezekiel, the mandate is for accountability on behalf of the community and again, never condemnatory.
The Lord may seem exasperated when in the end if all fails, he recommends considering the person as a publican or pagan. Here, we see that the person is not pushed away into exclusion but that the seclusion is his or her own doing. Nevertheless, there remains a hope for inclusion. Jesus does not wish to add to the exclusion. Rather, he wishes to promote inclusion. He did this all his life. All through his public ministry, the Lord encountered conflicts that people tried to resolve according to the law. But beyond human laws of interaction is the call to love even one’s enemy. The Lord chastises but never disenfranchises. There is always the call to reconcile, to come together into the Kingdom of God. The Lord makes an example of himself on how to gently reach out in compassion to such persons as the publican Matthew, the Samaritan woman at the well or even the woman caught in adultery. Never was a harsh or aggressive word addressed to them, instead, loving and gentle words of compassion. Indeed, honey attracts more flies than vinegar. For the good shepherd, even the lost sheep is never lost but kept close to his heart which moves him to seek it out until found. The movement is not for proving how the person strayed in the wrongdoing but to accompany him or her in the process of reconciliation.
The Lord also calls for initiative on the part of the offended and not to wait for the offender to come to his senses and come around. Mercy and reconciliation are tools given us to fix strained relationships when we sin and when we are sinned against. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, puts the emphasis on love. It contains all other Christian obligations. A spiritual writer says, “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbor; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” To keep the commandments without love – which is possible – is to become not another Jesus but a Pharisee. If I really care for my neighbor then I know that I am keeping the commandments and that I also am loving God. I have to look carefully at the needs of my brothers and sisters. If I see them hurting themselves or someone else, that is my business. I am also accountable.
For the Lord Jesus, it is incumbent upon the community to be a place of welcome and healing, never a place of judgment and condemnation. The Christian community has the mandate to be an alternative space of solidarity and fraternity in the midst of a broken world. The Lord promotes inclusion and never exclusion. The Lord backs this up with a call to communal prayer. Even when all civility methods are exhausted, there is still the obligation to pray together to the Father to achieve reconciliation. The praying community does not have to be a big number, two or three are enough to be are gathered in his name for the Lord to be present and attend to their appeal. And Jesus guarantees that the Father will listen. The Lord calls on the community to mediate God’s goodness, God’s forgiveness, mercy, and love. This is both a tremendous gift and also a great responsibility.
We are a praying community. Today we are affirmed in our communal responsibility for the world at large. Our prayers do not only keep us together. The Lord knows where, when and for whom they are needed.