Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Justice and Mercy

                                    23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

As usual today’s first reading sets the tone or theme for the rest of the readings. The inspired word of the Prophet Ezekiel warns us that we must act like watchmen for our neighbors. In other words we must be on the lookout to warn them of approaching danger. Like any watchman who falls asleep on the job, or leaves his post, we will be held responsible when those who are entrusted to our care suffer a spiritual death.

There are two problems that go with this responsibility. First, we all know that many will not listen even to the best-intentioned and wisest advice. Second, we may not be up to the task, and may even be the ones who need to be warned about our own behavior. Who are we to tell others what to do?

In today’s gospel Jesus tells gives us some very practical and specific advice. He is talking about cases where someone has sinned against us, injured, or harmed us in any way. What is our responsibility? How are we to react? He tells us not to broadcast the offense or put it up on our Facebook account. He recommends that we take the person aside and speak to him or her one on one.

This may sound like a trivial example but I think of the way coaches at almost every level will publicly berate a player for some error or mistake committed during a game. I have seen this happen at every level. Maybe I don’t know enough about coaching, but I wish more coaches would just take the player aside and point out the mistake without humiliating them in front of everyone.

Getting back to the gospel, if one on one doesn’t work Jesus insists that we still be willing to go the extra mile. Get a second or even a third opinion. In today’s language we might call this seeing a mediator, or even convening an intervention. If nothing works, Jesus says that you have no choice but to treat the offender as a Gentile or tax collector. In modern language we might say ignore or have nothing to do with them as long as they remain obstinate and unrepentant.

To me the most important words in today’s gospel are the following:

Amen, I say to you,Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

These words place an incredible responsibility and power on all of us. If we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us, we and they are likely to suffer some very serious consequences. In ways that we do not realize or understand, we may cause irreparable harm to the person against whom we hold a grudge. Failure to forgive will also inflict serious damage on ourselves.  How does it help us to hold a grudge against someone over what is often a trivial matter?

In the same way, offering forgiveness to those who have wronged us will often give unimaginable benefits to them and to ourselves. I know a man who refused to forgive his sister for years over a really trivial slight. How did they benefit her or him?

In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us that all the commandments are summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In the great Gothic cathedrals statues personifying justice and mercy were often placed side by side. Justice and mercy are two great virtues but they can sometimes be in conflict with each other. Justice demands that when someone offends us, they should be punished or at least pay some kind of restitution. Mercy, on the other hand, demands that they be forgiven. How can we reconcile the conflicting claims of justice and mercy? Above the statues of Justice and Mercy there would usually be placed a statue representing Love, the greatest of all the virtues. It is Love that will reconcile.

As St. Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans:

Love does no evil to the neighbor;Hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.


Reading 1. Ezekiel 33: 7-9
Reading II. Romans 13: 8-10
Gospel. Matthew 18: 15-20 (If your brother sins against you...)

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