Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 10, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Ez 33:7-9 / Ps 95 / Rom 13:8-10 / Mt 18:15-20
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
Sometimes in the Bible we come across certain passages that are as relevant and practical in our lives today as they were a thousand years ago when they were first written. Today’s readings are good examples of such passages. Together they remind us that, as faithful Christians, it is our responsibility to reach out to our not-so-faithful brothers and sisters and bring them back into the fold. They even go on to recommend practical steps for how to go about doing this.
A young woman, Lydia, strayed from the church as a teenager. After nine years of experimenting with atheism, spiritism, and New Age, she found her way back again to the Church, by the grace of God. Relating her story, Lydia said that what hurt her most was that, in all her years of spiritual exile, nobody in the Church missed her. Nobody ever phoned or visited to find out what was wrong. “I got the impression that the Church did not want me,” she said.
Of course, the Church wants her, but what are we doing to help the many men and women in her situation to find their way back into full communion with the Church? Today’s readings invite us to review our “I don’t care” attitude toward fallen and lapsed members of the Church, reminding us that, yes, it should be our business to reach out to them.
Why should it be our business whether somebody else decides to serve God or not? As members of the Church, we are not just priestly people who offer a sacrifice. We are also a prophetic people, meaning that we are God’s spokespersons.
Today’s first reading is, in fact, a compact job description that God gave to the prophet Ezekiel on what it means to be a prophetic person. The first reading is a passage in the new phase of the prophetic ministry of Ezekiel, and it occurs in the context of an invasion of Palestine by a hostile army. Just as a watchman who warns the people of impending danger is not to be blamed if they do not listen, so Ezekiel is not to be blamed if the people to whom he preaches do not reform their lives. But if he fails to preach to them, then he must accept the blame.
St. Paul, in the second reading, reminds everyone that love is the key to obeying each of the commandments. Real love is love that looks out for the interest of other people. For a person who really loves, other people come first. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus gives an instruction in how to handle a refractory disciple. The instruction describes a formal procedure in three steps:
Step One: private confrontation. If there is no success, then the next step is recommended.
Step Two: the use of one or two additional formal witnesses. Failure here leads to a final step.
Step Three: Resort to the community, such as the local church. If there is no success here, the disciple is to be placed outside the communion of believers, as we say ‘excommunicated’.
Members of the Church who view church membership as being the same as citizenship in a civil government should think twice after hearing today’s reading. In a civil society, objection about fundamental policy is not only at times permitted; disagreement is at times required in order to be loyal to God.
But the Church in its fundamental teachings lives at a level much more profound. The leaders of the Church are invested with the authority of God, which means that they have to move within the bounds indicated to them by God, such as by being attentive to the scripture and tradition, the two sources of revelation.
Leaders of the Church in fundamental matters cannot do whatever they feel like. They are responsible to God for the flock entrusted to them. If they neglect to proclaim the message entrusted to them, God will hold them responsible. They are invested with the authority of God. But this authority is designed to help them and all of the Church’s members listen to God’s voice in the profoundly important matters of life, involving principles of moral and religious actions.
The Church can function as it should only if all of its members — leaders and non-leaders alike — obey the fundamental call of Jesus to love. But precisely because love is the fundamental law of the Church’s existence, decisive action with Church leaders is at times necessary, if they are to remain true to their calling by God.
God clearly wants everybody to be saved. He does not desire the death of a sinner. “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked?” says the Lord God. “Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live? (Ez 18:23).” That is why Jesus teaches us in the gospel about fraternal correction; how to correct an erring brother and bring him back to the path of salvation.
Underlying the whole thing should be genuine love or charity. For St. Paul says in the second reading, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” God’s law of love asks all of us to be vigilant, not only for outside dangers, but also to keep watch within. Keep guard and watch over our hearts to ensure that we love as God loves, and our hearts do not harden into legalism, lack of compassion and mercy, or apathy. We’re all sentinels, watchpersons, vigilant for any discord, hatred, or inconsistency with the Gospel, and vigilant within ourselves for resentment, jealousy. Desire begins in the heart.
We now see the rapid and unrelenting spread of evil and immorality and sin in our world. Shall we continue being passive and impervious to all this? Unless we do something now, we may find ourselves the next on defense. As the famous quotation from Edmund Burke says, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Let the gospel this Sunday inspire and empower us to proclaim the truth courageously, to denounce evil and sin resolutely, and to correct wrongdoers in truth and charity. The essence of discipleship and faithfulness to God is love. This is a love that is formed from within by God’s grace. It fosters loving watchfulness inside and out, and it softens the heart and saves us from ourselves. It turns us back toward each other and creates understanding, healing, and reconciliation. For us Christians, goodwill and kindness are not things we may choose to do or not to do. It is a debt we owe to each and every one.