Sep 4, 2011

23rd Sunday: In all things, Charity

Year A:

Ez 33: 7-9
Rom 13: 8-10
Mt 18: 15-20

In the 1960's there was a popular television program with a humorous and somewhat sad character by the name of Mrs. Kravitz. Her self imposed role was to be the local busy-buddy. As she peered through closed drapes, stared at neighbor's comings and goings from her front lawn, and created surprise visits to the neighbor's front door, her sole intent was to find out what other people were up to.

The scenarios would play themselves out with humor because in the end Mrs. Kravitz usually lost. We laugh at such events in their television, sit-com situations but none of us would appreciate a neighbor like Mrs. Kravitz. We would think twice about trusting someone whose sole purpose was to correct and snoop on the lives of others, no matter how innocent she or he may claim to be. As Pastor of a parish I would be very concerned about a parishioner who would be constantly running to inform me, “Father, did you hear about so and so?”

However, this Sunday's readings seem to encourage that we observe and correct the misbehavior of our neighbor. Our first reading from Ezekiel states, “. . . I have appointed you watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me . . .” God speaks to Ezekiel the prophet and lays upon him the responsibility of being the conscience, the corrective voice of God himself. Yet, it was not to be the local prophetic busy-buddy that God deputized Ezekiel. It was rather for the sake of the offender: “. . . to dissuade the wicked man from his way . . .” There is here an underlying principle of fraternal charity.

Further, Jesus offers a similar example from the Gospel of Matthew: “If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault . . .” While such a task is less than comfortable for those who abhor confrontation, as most of us do, there is no Mrs Kravitz at play here. God does not call Ezekiel to be the moral police of Israel any more than we are invited to be unduly concerned about violating the privacy of our brother or sister. Reading between the lines and seeing these scriptures in context helps us to understand the ministry of fraternal correction and charity that we accept in the authority of Christ, who alone provides the model of charitable living.

Remember the woman caught in adultery. She was guilty without the shadow of a doubt and she knew so as well. The law was not on her side as she would have been stoned to death for such a grievance against the moral law of God. Such individuals, if accepted into a perfect community (of which there is no such thing) would be an embarrassment and a danger, so she must be eliminated for the sake of justice as the ancient Judaic law implied.

However, once brought to Jesus as a test and a deliberate set-up by the Pharisees to shame him, he responded in a way that we see in the Gospel today. Once alone, he gently but firmly pointed out to the nameless woman the cause of her sin but did so in a way that made it even more undeniable. It seems he simply looked at her, said nothing but never whitewashed her guilt. She likely stood there in shame and fear. Yet, he did not let he stand there in humiliation. Though she may have done evil, he still offered her a basic respect. She expected to be condemned but received forgiveness with a call to correction: “Go and sin no more.” He didn't pick up a stone, he didn't shake his finger at her, he didn't invite others to share in his act of correction. The scriptures later imply she got the message loud and clear for there is a tradition that one of the faithful Mary's we hear of may have been that woman.

In the Gospel today we hear this three-fold method of correction that was presented to the earliest of Christians. First, speak privately to the individual. Second, if they still don't correct their harmful behavior, then bring in some credible witnesses in order to gently drive home the offense. If that doesn't bring a positive result, then take the issue before the “church.” (Those responsible for unity among the members). If that last attempt fails to correct the scandalous issue, then ask the person to leave the community lest their lifestyle become harmful to the good of the whole.

The guiding principles were respect for the individual, honesty, charity and reconciliation. Such a method was carried out with a maxim: In all things, charity. Good parental discipline is guided by the love a parent has for their child. They correct and discipline their child's behavior when young in order to teach them at that very impressionable age what is moral, right, socially acceptable behavior. Add to that the law of God given to us in the Commandments and the moral applications of Jesus. This makes for the perfect formula of human, spiritual, and faith formation. The Christian call to holiness is not just talk; it is ultimately played out in our behavior towards our neighbor after the example of Christ himself. It is not about looking the other way when we see evil or scandal or destructive behavior in ourselves or in others, which is not helpful.

A care for the common good is a favorite Catholic template. What is behavior that contributes to the common good and where do we as a community of individuals see choices being made by other members, or by ourselves, that pull down or scandalize the common good of faith among the members? Does the behavior or lifestyle choice of a parent or a child in a family bring pride or shame to that family? That may be clear in a small community as a household but it is a principle about charitable correction that is not always easy to impose upon a much larger community such as a parish or organization that professes to be Christian.

In the end, whatever the size of the human community, we remember Jesus' own truth at the end of this Sunday's Gospel: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” With Christ as head of our Church we his members are challenged to mirror him.

In all things, Christ-like charity is a good thought as we see that fraternal correction, whether it be from parents, friends, church leaders, spouses, or truly caring neighbors, given with due respect and inspired by love is a great gift. The healing sacramental power of reconciliation is a gift for which we should be grateful. What is best for the community of which I am a member and not just for my own self-interest?

So, let's not be a peering Mrs Kravitz but do all things with love for each other. May we continue to be what the pagan world said about the early Christians: “See how they love one another.” United as one with Christ as our Bread of Life, may we become who we receive.