23rd Sunday Ordinary Time A - Supporting One Another
In today’s bible readings we hear about being responsible believers, responsible for supporting one another.
In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is reminded to warn people when harm is coming their way, or to confront people who are harming themselves by violating the word of God especially regarding other persons. The prophet is warned not to turn a blind eye to forbidden behavior out of fear of what authorities might do to him. He must come to the rescue of people who are violating the word of God and urge them to obey the commandments of the Lord.
In the second reading, St Paul tells us that we obey the commandments of the Lord by having love and showing love. Paul quotes the commandments regarding other people and says that the secret to observing them is having love. That means having respect and concern for others. Just as parents love their children and keep them from harming themselves, so we as believers should try to keep others from harming themselves or the community of believers.
When we look at today’s gospel, it helps to start from the end and read back from there. In that last sentence Jesus tells us: “When two or three people are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” When we come together as believers in Jesus, we form part of the local church and Jesus is present with us. Jesus assures us that whatever we ask the Father in his name will be given. The Father will hear and accept our prayers. They might not be answered in the way we expect, but our prayers will be heard and answered in God’s good way and God’s good time.
And then, reading back further in today’s gospel, we are reminded that we believers continue to be weak human beings. Pope Francis reminds us of that by being the first to admit that he is a sinner and needs the support of our prayers. We need to accept the mercy of God and pass it on to others by understanding and forgiving them as we are understood and forgiven by God. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we don’t forgive others, how can we expect to be forgiven by God?
I think that is the point of the harsh words in today’s gospel which say something like this: If they don’t listen to the Church, consider that they have separated themselves from the community. The community simply cannot allow any of its members to live a life in contradiction to what the community represents. If someone is resentful or envious or gossipy and harms the reputation of others, there are helpful and considerate ways of engaging with that person so as to prevent further harm to that person or to others. But when it is question of serious harm or scandal, the local church community has the responsibility of judging, not to condemn but to maintain order and protect the community and, hopefully, to bring about the conversion of the offenders.
One example that comes to mind is that of people who deceive their husband or wife by having one family in Japan and another in their home country, unknown to either spouse. More than once I have come across such cases in the confessional. These are times when the priest cannot give absolution. The priest cannot say “I forgive your sins” when he knows that the situation of having two families is not going to change. I invite such persons to come around outside the confessional to discuss the situation and look for some solution.
Another example of serious harm is taking part in public demonstrations of hate or discrimination against minorities. But there are other less noticeable sins of society that involve us all, in one way or another. For instance, increasing our own wealth by taking advantage of the weakness of others. This is especially true of the wealthier countries of the world when they buy resources or cheap labor from other countries to increase their own wealth. We all bear some responsibility for the sins of society, and I think this is why Pope Francis reminds us that we are all sinners and share in a collective responsibility.
In fulfilling our duty of mutual responsibility and fraternal correction, we have to be careful not to confront others out of revenge or anger. That only provokes a reaction of self-defense. And we can pray for people in high positions who make bad decisions out of self-interest. We can pray for their conversion, that they will open their hearts to the sufferings of so many people whom they tend to ignore. And we can ask ourselves what we are doing as responsible individuals to build up a more peaceful, joyful, and hopeful society.
The Christian community changes for the better when we ourselves change for the better and help one another to change and grow. This pertains to us all. Today more than ever we believers need to hear Jesus’ call to change our ways and help one another to become better believers, better humans, better citizens of our country and our world.
Robert Chiesa SJ