04Sep 04 Sept, Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme

We may have a moral obligation to correct blatant wrongdoing, whether in the family, the workplace or the wider society. But it is incumbent on parents, and all who have others in their care, to administer such correction with love and respect. The old dictum, that one should “hate the sin but love the sinner” is a good guideline in many situations, as is St Paul’s principle: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Readings

Ezek 33:7-9. As a preacher, Ezekiel has great responsibility. If he calls the wicked to repentance he will share in their salvation; but if he fails to speak, he may cause some to die in their sins.

Rom 13:8-10. Paul wonderfully summarises the great commandment by the phrase “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Loving our neighbour, we will never do him wrong.

Mt 18:15-20. It is sometimes our duty to correct a fellow-Christian who is doing wrong. If the correction fails, there are further steps to be taken, in a community spirit.

Bidding Prayers

– for those in authority that they will appreciate and fulfil the responsibility they are entrusted with.

– for ourselves, that we may have a genuine spirit of responsibilty towards our fellow human beings, whom God has entrusted to our care.

– for those who have gone astray through the permissiveness of society.

– for a return of our people to the best standards of decency and kindness towards our neighbour.

Homilies

Casting A Blind Eye (Liam Swords)

Recent disclosures about a paedophile priest in Ireland, which made worldwide headlines, shocked and dismayed many Catholics. It was its political consequences, causing as it did the downfall of a government, that attracted international interest in the story. Cases of child-abuse and worse, even by priests, are no longer regarded in many places in today’s world as front-page stories. But the quaint medieval image of Ireland abroad as a country where the actions of a priest could bring down a government was newsworthy. Reaction in Ireland was altogether different. Old hardened priests with lifelong experience of dealing with sinners and their sins, with all their sordidness, were known to have broken down and wept. A priest who betrayed his sacred trust with the most innocent of all victims, a child, was beyond their comprehension. What angered people most of all was that the story might never have come to light if the priest had not been charged by the police. And that despite the fact that his superiors kne about his child abuse aberrations for years. How many victims might have been spared had those superiors taken appropriate action.

One would think that those who preach the gospel had never heard that gospel where Christ said to his disciples: If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you; the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.

One thing is sure. The local community where that priest abused his many victims with impunity was the last to be told. One wonders whether Christ had anything as heinous as child-abuse by a disciple in mind, when he gave them those instructions.

It was a tragic irony that one who probably preached against the permissiveness of our age should have been guilty himself of one of the grossest forms of it. This permissiveness with all its tragic consequences, is symptomatic of the times we live in. From bishops to bosses, politicians to policemen, parents to teachers, “passing the buck” is rampant. They want the privileges of power without accepting the penalties. We all shy away from problems, cast a blind eye, shirk responsibility. And when the scandal leaks out, as inevitably it does, we always make the same excuse. We claim we didn’t know. But such ignorance in those of us who exercise authority is no excuse. What the Lord told Ezekiel, applies equally to us: “I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel.” And he went on to spell it out plainly:

“If you do not warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his – death.”

President Truman had a card on his desk in the White House with the words inscribed on it in bold capitals, -The buck stops here.” It would sit as well on a teacher’s desk in the classroom as in the headmaster’s office; in the priest’s parlour as in the bishop’s palace. It would fit indeed anywhere people are “their brother’s keepers.” But nowhere would it fit better nowadays than on the kitchen mantlepiece, with its four simple words pointing straight at us like an accusing finger. For those of us who have others in our care, our main concern should not be to be popular but to help. And we help most by accepting our responsibility.

Life Is Worth Living (John Walsh)

During the early days of heart-transplant operations, the milestone for a patient was to survive a year afterwards. One particular patient who had attained this goal, described how before the operation all he wanted was to die, but after he had survived it, the world seemed a different place to him. “When you have faced death,” he said, “and been given another chance of life, you notice everything.” As a French philosopher Sartre said, “The peak of love’s joy, if it exists at all, is to feel that life is worth living.” His year’s reprieve from death had brought this man a fresh vision of the wonder of living. Christ’s declaration in the gospel that there is more to life than just eating, or drinking, or the provision of clothing and shelter, now seemed true. But if it happens that we can become blind to the wonders of nature, how much more likely are we to ignore the marvels of divine revelation, which is the foundation of our religious beliefs. For it may so easily happen that our religious vision and undersanding of life on earth can become blurred and recede into the background of our minds.

A convert in mature years, like the great English writer and commentator, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, could marvel at the wild extremes of truth to be found in the Church’s teaching; for example, the Virgin giving birth – a seeming contradiction in terms, the divine death – an even greater contradiction, the sacredness of marriage being praised on the same level as dedication to God by a life of celibacy in a religious order, and so on. The sense of almost childlike wonder before the truths of revelation, or before God’s creation, is something which, perhaps to a certain extent, the modern person has lost. So wonderful are the discoveries and advances in new technology that they are almost taken for granted. Twentieth century people have become carried away by the hustle and bustle of complete change which has swept so rapidly through their world. Historically speaking they have, one might say, become dislocated, cast adrift from their moorings in the past. There is such little continuity linking them with thatpast, which seems light-years away. And there is a vagueness about the future – in fact there is the fearful possibility that there may not be a future, if one considers the nuclear holocaust that could be unleashed on the world by national leaders hungry for power. In the face of all this, however, our response must not be one of despair and helplessness. Far from being a thing of fear, our belief in the providential care of God should be a liberating force. There may be some who, like the orthodox Jew in the time of Christ, maintain that people are not being religious unless they are enduring some kind of discomfort. Those who go down that road end up as victims to pessimism. But then, I cannot lock myself up in the secret room of my own heart and let others sink further into disillusion. Our Christian faith tells us, quite literally, that we are all members of one family, that our aim and prayer must be to become “one Body, one Spirit, in Christ.”

In today’s readings, God is telling me that I must be filled with concern for my sisters and brothers, in particular should they lose the vision of their immortal destiny, and the urge to strive for it. In the first reading God is calling me to be a prophet. This has nothing to do with foretelling the future. In the OT, a prophet was a person of God, one filled with the Spirit of God, one who had given himself up to be a servant of God, a witness before the whole world to the things of God. “Son of man,” we were told in the first reading, “I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel.” A prophet was a sentry, a watchman, a familiar figure in the defence system of the land. A sentry always stood apart, on a tower or rampart. He noticed everything; he tried to see the significance of any movement around him, to spot any signs of danger for his community.

Likewise the committed Christian must be concerned about others, about the dangers that threaten them. Christ never said that it was none of our business if people were being exploited, or being led astray, or leading sinful lives. But neither did he reveal an individual’s sins to his face. And so we are to be prophets by giving open witness to Christian virtues in our own lives, by wooing the wrong-doers back to the true path, by praying for them, and by manifesting always an active love for them, as did Christ Jesus. A certain saint never tired of telling those who came to see him that many, many souls are lost, because they have nobody to pray for them. It is for usalways do that faithfully.

Watchman’s Warning (Peter Briscoe)

The homilist today might take a leaf from Ezekiel’s book. Ezekiel borrowed an image from war and its threat to national survival; a people under threat needs its sentries. The real threat that sentry Ezekiel sees, is not an attack from without, but the breakdown of the community from within, a breakdown that leads to death. The danger that he must warn about is the threat of sin. This warning of Ezekiel is not directed to the community as a whole but to the individual within it. Individual responsibility takes on a new force in his message.

Our own age is also preoccupied with the problems of national and international peace and security. For us, the watchman on the city wall is no longer a sufficient security; we claim the need of sophisticated “early-warning” devices, and our peace hangs on a balance of terror. The threat of our world is no longer the fall of a city but an international holocaust.

Ezekiel preached as a prisoner in enemy territory and he could warn that it was not the enemy without, but the enemy within, that is the real threat to life – that enemy is sin, the abandonment of God. Today it is the prophetic role of the Church to continue this preaching (even if its voice is treated like something coming from foreign soil.) The gospel of Christ is that life and peace come from faith in God and the doing of his will. This gospel calls us to repentance but is no mere denunciation of sin. Christ brought the gift of reconciliation and life. One might develop this further by reflecting on how we as a community can be a sign of what we preach a repentant community that has found the life and peace offered by Christ.

A reconciled community: Today’s readings confront us with two aspects of the question. Firstly the need for a sense of individual responsibility in the way of conversion. Ezekiel certainly made it clear that the individual is addressed by the Word of God calling for repentance. There is no way out of this personal responsibility.

Secondly, Matthew shows that reconciliation with God is not a purely individual matter. While it does concern each individual, it takes place in and through the community, the Church of Christ. One might develop the idea that in the church’s ministry of reconciliation both individual and community must be mutually supportive. Each of us Comes to faith and baptism into Christ only through the community, and our sin no matter how personal, is never a purely private affair. Sin damages our own dignity as the image of God and it also wounds the community (Saint Ambrose.) Our reconciliation with God involves reconciliation with and through the community, because as Matthew tells us today, it is in the Church that Christ is present for us.

But all of this should not be seen simply in terms of what the individual owes to the community. The whole Church is called to be supportive of each person who seeks reconciliation. This is especially important in a world where so many people feel threatened by the alienating force of impersonal state structures. The Church is not called to be mega-corporation.

Individuals who are lost, perplexed by their own failures and oppressed by the weaknesses of others, need a community that does not drive them further into isolation but one which calls them through forgiveness and love into the life of fellowship. Living in this fellowship does mean that we owe debts to one another, and as Paul reminds us today the only obligation tat ultimately counts is the debt of love we owe one another.

This reconciled community will be an effective sign to the world not because it creates a superficial harmony, but because it faces the reality of sin in itself. It finds forgiveness as the solution to this threat. Renewal of the ministry of reconciliation in the Church increasingly takes the form of communal services of penance, linked to the celebration of the sacrament. This is an effective way of bringing home to people that all sin effects the community and reconciliation must include the community.

Christ our Light (Jim Mazzone)

“If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” My favorite image of this power is at the Easter Vigil each year. All the lights would go out in the Church one by one. Until all the lights were off except up in the choir loft. Then we would turn our overhead light out, and the organist would turn out her light which illuminated the sheet music and finally we would be in complete darkness.

Slowly the deacon would bring in the Paschal Candle chanting – Christ our Light – until he reached the front of the Church and then from the best view in the Church we would watch this flame get spread down the pews and aisles from candle to candle, and in a matter of moments the entire church would be bright enough to illuminate the ribbing of the high vaulted ceilings in this massive, gothic structure. we loved that moment. It was powerful. One could see the power of community. The power of our individual lights united. The power of prayer.

We guess this is the image that I have carried around with me all of these years illustrating the power of community prayer. I believe in it as clearly as I could see the hundreds of candles illuminating a once dark church.

Now all these years later I get a similar view of things from the choir loft as a priest presiding – but now I am in the front of the Church. And there are times that I wish you and I could trade places for a moment so you could see what I see. It is a beautiful and powerful sight.

Love between Brothers (Henry Wansbrough)

All three readings are concerned with the obligations to each other of those within the believing community. As so often, the first reading looks to the third, and these two teach about fraternal correction, though from a slightly different angle. The first reading is about fraternal correction from the outside, so to speak, the third from the inside. The first kind of fraternal correction, when one member of the community corrects the faults of another which have nothing to do with him, is a special vocation belonging to the prophet specially commissioned by God. Although it is in any circumstances a great act of love and a great benefit to bring another to repent of his fault, in practice it is not everyone who can achieve this, and the mere realization of someone’s faults is not sufficient warrant for setting out on this bomb-strewn path. We can often deceive ourselves about our good motives in so correcting our neighbour – it can so easily be a mere excuse for self-righteous spite, busybody interference, r desire to remove annoyance to ourselves – with the probable result of provoking hostility and confirmation in the fault out of sheer obstinacy. Such correction can really be beneficial only if it truly springs from and is founded on love.

The other sort of correction, from the inside, is a different matter, since it arises inevitably out of relationships and dealings between one man (or woman) and another, and should really be a preliminary to mutual forgiveness. Failure to tax a partner about some real or imagined cause of complaint can result only in a festering discontent, while honestly facing up to the disagreement can often show it to be trivial or even a total mistake. More often than not the fault is found to be on both sides. A puzzling feature of Matthew’s prescriptions for sorting out such differences is the seeming hardness of taking the matter even to law. The purpose is perhaps that one must insist on reaching the root cause and resolving the basic conflict; it is no use leaving the job half done. A useful supplementary tip from the Old Testament is to act quickly, before the matter gets distorted: “Never let the sun go down upon your anger.”

This fraternal correction too is, of course, the product of love, for it springs from the desire for reconciliation and the return to union. So in a way it is the second reading that is basic to the others. For St Paul love is the clothing the Christian wears, for it is the obvious thing about a Christian which gives the clue and brings unity to all his action. But it is more than this, for it penetrates through and through. As the Holy Spirit it is the life-principle of the Christian, both informing and giving coherence to all his conduct as a member of Christ. Furthermore, the Hebraeo-Christian concept of love is like nothing which existed before it, so much so that the first translators into Greek had almost to invent a new word, which hardly existed before in the Greek language. It is strong, active, self-sacrificing, respectful, a bond not merely of feeling but of service. The full implications of what Paul means by the Spirit of love can be seen in such passages as Gal. 5:13-24 or 1 Cor. 13:4-13. It is his which sets the tone for the reconciliation and forgiveness demanded by the other two readings.

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9 

So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-10 

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20 

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
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