Sep. 9, 2017

Twenty-Third Sunday


Readings: 1st- Ezk. 33:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 13:8-10; Gospel- Matt. 18:15-20

Each time I asked my congregation which is more difficult between loving “the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength”, and “loving your neighbor as yourself”, the answer has always been, “the latter”. Everyone subscribes that loving God is easier than loving fellow human beings the way God would want us to. Still the Scripture tells us, “Anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother is a liar” (1 Jn. 4:20). Perhaps Paul’s Roman congregation expressed similar view that made him reinforce the importance of love for one’s neighbor. In all three readings of today, we see what looks like the rubric of love for our neighbor, what constitutes the duty we owe when we claim to love.

In the first reading, God speaks to the prophet 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” (Ezk. 33:7). The call to prophecy places heavy responsibility on Ezekiel. He is to be watchman for the people. A watchman in Israel or sentinel is someone who looks out over the city, and must warn the people of impending danger from either inside or outside. That’s the job imposed on all Old Testament prophets. They have a tough challenge; “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death”. What a task. This is a bold step. Do you want to know what happens to prophets when they challenge the unruly behavior of kings? Then think of John the Baptist who had his head chopped off because he spoke the truth to Herod Antipas. We see prophets like Elijah, Jonah, Daniel, Shedrack, Meshack and Abednego, Jeremiah (who lamented last Sunday), and today, Ezekiel take up this role of the sentinel. It is more honorable to let the evil doer know of his evil than to smear him at the back. Prophecy demands stating God’s intention for a person. It demands saying the truth. The question is why God would want us to take up such a risky job. The answer is because God loves us so much.

There is a close relationship between what the prophet Ezekiel experiences in the first reading and the three-step approach that Christ proposes in the gospel. If your brother sins against you:

  1. Go and tell him his faults between you and him alone. You might or might not succeed in winning him over. Glory to God if you win. But you must take the step.
  2. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Those witnesses might influence the conversation positively.
  3. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. The community is meant to be an agent of love and support. The Church has the power to reconcile.

It is only when he refuses to listen to the church that you can treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. The emphasis here is not to ostracize and condemn but to explore every means to making peace and granting forgiveness. Jesus seems to refer us back to the Torah here; reproving a fellow Israelite is a sign of love and helps to keep resentment from growing between brothers as Moses writes, “You will reprove your fellow country-man firmly and thus avoid burdening yourself with a sin. You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:17-18).

So, the three-step approach of today’s gospel is a pointer to the responsibility vested on Christians to love. That Jesus commands us to go and let our brothers/sisters know when they offend us portrays commitment towards the bond of love. Instead of harbor malice and hate, enter into dialogue with the one who offends you. That’s Christian charity.

Saint Paul gives us two dimensions of love. First is that love is a debt that we need to pay, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another”.  To owe a debt is an obligation. Love obliges us to recognize that we cannot escape its demands. My friend was telling me how his bank put credit on his card some-time ago. He used the credit but decided to stop using the credit card after he exhausted the credit. The reason is that he wasn’t ready to pay of his credit (debt), so he took the unfortunate escape route. The bank gave him some time and wrote him a letter that they were going to report him to the debt recovery agency. It was then that he realized the gravity of his offence and had to go to dialogue with the bank. Love is a “good” debt that we owe. We must pay it off through support, care, compassion and forgiveness. We must respect and protect others.

Secondly, Saint Paul reminds us, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). He uses the commandments of God to portray the demand which the Law places on its subjects. God commands us not to commit adultery, not to kill, not to steal, not to covet another’s property. These commandments anchor on the great law of love. In a sense, the commandments above express the human ability to recognize and respect the feelings, interests and dignity of others for the sake of God’s love. This is the rubric of love, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This is agape, the pure, unselfish concern for others because they are God’s creatures.

Let us look around us today and see who we really love. What is the driving force for your love? What motive? Imagine if the reason for that love is no more. Can you still love the person? Is your love beneficial to you or to the one loved? Is your love sacrificial or pay-back oriented? Christ tells us to commit to another, to take steps that are demanding and far reaching. Go to the person who has offended you. Let him know about it, don’t just gossip. Don’t bear grudges, step out. Engage your detractor, don’t castigate her. Love involves reaching out.

Importantly today, let’s remember those afflicted by the hurricane and storms in Houston, Florida and even Puerto Rico. Let’s show them that we love them- providing relief materials and supports. Reach out to those affected. Call them to express concern for what they are going through even if you cannot donate materials. There are channels through which you can reach out. Go on the websites of mainstream media: CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, etc. Go through Catholic Charities. Go through Red Cross. There are ways to volunteer to help. Today’s challenge is to follow the rubric provided for us by the commandment. It derives from Christ’s injunction, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). And Saint Paul continues, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 8:10). Let’s do the LOVE ASSIGNMENT using these rubrics- Pay off your debt of love; fulfill the commandment of love.