Sep 6, 2014

23rd Sunday: Fraternal forgiveness

"Ubi Caritas"
Where charity and love are, there God is.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one flock.
Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other (and Him).

Where charity and love are, there God is.
Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:
Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.
Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God.

Where charity and love are, there God is.
Together also with the blessed may we see,
Gloriously, Thy countenance, O Christ our God:
A joy which is immense, and also approved:
Through infinite ages of ages.
"Where two or three are gathered in my name,
there am I in the midst of them."

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

There is a wonderful line in the closing scene of the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The villagers fear banishment from their small village of Anatevka in Russia, a place of family and tradition. One of the villagers cries out: “We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!” In response the wise old Tevya answers with kindness: “That’s very good.  And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

It’s clear the wisdom of Tevya was far more forgiving and productive for the future of his own townsfolk.  Violence is not the solution to violence but rather as St. Paul reminds us today in the second reading, we are expected to love one another.  Tevya’s solution was to forgive and to live by a higher moral code.

Our Gospel this Sunday lays out for us a most practical example of how Christians of the early Church communities addressed problems they found between themselves.  Like a parent who teaches far more by example rather than words, if we live out what we believe then our words are far more effective.

In the early first century of the Christian faith those who followed the new way proposed by Jesus and his followers found themselves having to establish a certain independence from their own past history.  The Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed, Jews were dispersed around the ancient world and the Christian believers had been shunned from the Jewish communities.  With all the new Gentile converts Christianity established itself as a distinct and new community.

While many Jewish traditions were still adopted, a new understanding of God and a new level of acceptance and inclusiveness settled on them.  Now it was the new law of love which bound them together and lessened the distinctions between people. It was to think with the mind of Christ.

But because we are sinners trying to be saints it was inevitable that conflict and division would arise in these communities.  There may have been issues of scandal or disagreements over matters of behavior and pastoral care for the members.  Rather than seek equal justice, “an eye for an eye” as it were, the good of the whole and Jesus’ own command to love needed to be applied through practical behavior and the moral principle of forgiveness.

Fraternal correction is one way to describe our responsibility not to police each other but to assist one another in the Christian way of life.  We have a certain responsibility to support one another to stay on the mark, to avoid sin, and as a community to be constantly open to receive and live the message of the Christian way. In short, the Bible reminds us that we are not isolated individuals sort of just plodding along by ourselves.

So the Gospel reveals what the early Church had established for the sake of the spiritual health of the whole Christian community.  The model of correction begins at the bottom and works its way to the top if necessary.
So the first approach is that of reconciliation between two offended members.  “If your brother (sister) sins against you go and tell him his fault.”  With love and forgiveness and respect for the other person, we seek reconciliation rather than retribution. It’s not about eyes and teeth but about building bridges between people.  The successive levels of awareness end with treating the unreconciled one as a “Gentile or tax collector.”

While this may sound harsh, let’s remember whose Gospel we are reading today – that of the tax collector Matthew.  Matthew was called by Jesus to his own inner circle and the gentiles were ultimately treated with acceptance and included in the early Church with love.

This call to fraternal correction is not a permit for gossip or being nosey or for spending our days interfering in my neighbor’s business. Rather, it is an act of love for the sake of each other’s good. To help and guide one another to stay on the mark, to avoid sin, and to collectively live the often demanding moral standards of our Christian way of life.

While the Gospel seems to emphasize verbal communication I think that as important as that is, if we ourselves are not good examples to one another and to the world in which we live, how can we ever expect to be included or forgiven ourselves?

For us Catholic Christians there is no better moment to experience this principle of unity than during our Eucharist celebrations.  We are one, all walking on the same road, seeking the mercy of God and expressing our concern for our neighbor we know and for the larger world around us.  Only by our courageous witness to the Gospel will Jesus become present in the culture today.
O God, by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption,
look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters,
that those who believe in Christ
may receive true freedom
and an ever lasting inheritance.
(Roman Missal: Collect of Mass)