Sunday, September 4, 2011

"If Your Brother Sins Against You ..."

To anyone raised in the English legal tradition, today’s Gospel almost has a kind of “due process” sound to it. Some years back, when I was stationed in Canada and this Gospel came up, someone suggested preaching wearing a wig and holding a judge’s gavel, to which I replied that in my case a wig would certainly be a good idea.
Be that as it may, it is indeed a “due process” kind of Gospel – this procedure Jesus outlines to deal with conflicts within the community of the Church. But it is a very particular type of “due process.” Obsessed as we are in our society with individual rights, when we speak of “due process” typically what gets emphasized is the legal protection of the rights of the one being accused (or, in this case, “challenged” might be a better word than “accused”). The “due process” Jesus outlines here does do that, but more importantly it is a process aimed at reconciliation. In that regard, it reminds me of the process in canon law for dealing with problem people in religious communities. The problem member is warned and given a chance to change several times before the process ends in expulsion. That’s because the goal of the process is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community. Expulsion may end up being necessary, but always only as a last resort - as it is in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel.
Only after 3 tries – individually, in a small group, and finally involving the whole community – is the person excommunicated. Even then, however, the story doesn’t quite end there. The excommunication prescribed by the procedure Jesus outlines is specified as: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. Devout, observant Jews avoided (as much as possible) having contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them.
Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, he seems to be muddying the waters a bit, because – coming from him – there is a certain nuance to that, because of course we can all recall how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may in fact (as they clearly are in this case) be outside because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided, highly conflicted North African Church of the 4th century, St. Augustine (354-430), speaking of the heretical and schismatic Christians he had to oppose so vigorously, said: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)].
So it is hardly surprising that the Church has always recognized reconciling wanderers back to the mainstream of the Church as one of the Church’s constant concerns. Canon law specifically mentions as one of the duties of pastors “to make every effort … so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion.” [CIC 528, 1] If evangelization, what Pope Paul VI called “the essential mission of the Church,” means bringing the good news to those who have not yet fully heard it, then the flip side of that, so to speak, is bringing the good news again to those who may well once have heard it but who, for whatever range of reasons, have not yet accepted it as really good news.
I am a big fan of medieval mystery stories, like Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (set in 14th-century Cambridge) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century Shrewsbury. In the final Brother Cadfael book, Cadfael (who is, first and foremost, a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey) has broken his vow of obedience. But, at the end of the story, he returns to the monastery and kneels before his Abbot, who responds: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”

Whatever we are or do - as individuals, as a parish, as a Church – the goal must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now at this altar, and forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 4, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. I've pinched a bit of your post and put it in my sidebar Father. I've credited you. I hope this is OK?

    I felt a terrible sense of anger and rejection for people I love today, coming from the Church or a few members in it and you have poured healing water on my powerless and out of control heart, with your words.

    God bless you and may Our Lady wrap her mantle around you, securely.