Sunday, September 7, 2014

Binding and Loosing

We live now - and are all very conscious of living - in a world torn apart by constant conflict. Of course, conflict has always been a perennial part of the human condition – at least since Cain killed Abel. But, thanks to our globalized consciousness and our modern media, we are much more aware of the big macro-conflicts that threaten the world’s security and stability. International, intra-national, and tribal disputes, invasions, civil wars, and terrorist attacks dominate the headlines and preoccupy policy makers in Washington and Wales and around the world.

And, besides those big, macro-conflicts, there are, of course, all the ordinary conflicts and disputes that divide families, break-up marriages, terminate friendships, and constantly wreak havoc on communities both large and small.

In today’s Gospel [Matthew 18:15-20], Jesus famously outlines a procedure for his disciples to deal with conflicts as they occur not in the world at large but within the community of the Church. It is what we might call a procedure for “due process in the Church.” But it is a very particular type of “due process.” Obsessed as we are in our society with ourselves and our individual rights, when we speak of “due process” typically what we emphasize is settling the score and achieving something called “justice.” The “due process” Jesus outlines here doesn’t necessarily ignore all 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 problematic people in religious communities. (Yes, there are such people sometimes!) The misbehaving 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.

Of course, on this earth at least, not all problems are solvable, as we know. We’re all familiar with the so-called “Serenity Prayer” - God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. In human terms, some problems just can’t be satisfactorily solved; some conflicts just can’t be peacefully reconciled; and it is an important part of practical human and political wisdom to know which is which and how best to deal with them.

So, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, expulsion may end up being necessary, but always only as a last resort. It is a patient process. As Pope Francis has written in his apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel: “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time.” [EG 24]  And so, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, it is only after 3 tries – individually, in a small group, and finally involving the whole community – that the person is 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, there is, – coming from him – a certain nuance to that, because, of course, we are all aware of how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may be there because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided North African Church of the 4th century, St. Augustine (354-430), speaking about the heretical and schismatic Christians he opposed 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.

The apostles’ power to bind and to loose includes both the authority to expel offenders from the community and also the power to readmit them. Elsewhere Saint Paul also addressed this issue. Writing to the Christian community in Corinth, which had taken disciplinary action against an offender, Paul reminded them that the offender’s eventual readmission should remain the goal of the process [2 Corinthians 2:5-8].

As some of you know, I am a big fan of medieval mystery stories, like Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (set in 14th-century Cambridge, where Matthew is a physician on the university faculty) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century Shrewsbury, where Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, who happens also to solve crimes). In the final book of the Brother Cadfael series, Cadfael breaks his vow of obedience. But, at the end of the story, he returns to the monastery and kneels before his Abbot, who responds simply: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”

Whatever we are or whatever we do - as an individual, as a family, as a political or civic community, as a parish, and as a Church – the goal (not always achievable, perhaps, but our goal nonetheless) 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.

As Cardinal Walter Kasper has recently written: “Mercy is the best and most beautiful news that can be told to us and that we should bring to the world. As God by his mercy always gives us a new chance, a new future, our mercy gives future to the other, and to a world that needs it so much” [“The Message of Mercy,” America, September 15, 2014].

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 7, 2014.

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