As some of you may know, I like to read medieval mysteries - 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). In the final volume of the Brother Cadfael stories, Cadfael leaves his monastery on a personal mission of his own. 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.”
In today’s Gospel [Matthew 18:15-20], Jesus famously outlines a procedure for his disciples to deal with conflicts that may occur within the community of the Church - what we might call a procedure for “due process in the Church.” But unlike “due process” in secular law, with its concern to vindicate individual rights, Jesus instead outlines a process aimed at reconciliation. In that regard, it reminds me a little of the process in canon law for dealing with problem people in religious life. 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.
We live in a world torn apart by constant conflict. We know, of course, that conflict has always been a part of the human condition – at least since Cain killed Abel. But, thanks to our globalized consciousness and 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, conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, civil wars, and terrorist attacks dominate the headlines and preoccupy policy makers around the world.
Meanwhile, we as a nation are more divided and conflicted than ever before in our history since our own Civil War. Books like The Big Sort describe how we are separating ourselves from one another geographically and in virtually every other way. Parties used to have disagreements about policies, which would then be discussed, debated, and eventually even resolved by negotiation and compromise. Now, however, policy differences are mainly mascots for competing teams whose main concern is just to hate and despise each other.
And, besides all 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.
Of course, at least in this world, not all problems are solvable, as we know - however reluctant we may be at times to admit it. 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. As Pope Francis wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” [EG 24]. Likewise, in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel, expulsion comes only after several patient attempts to avoid it.
Even then, however, the story doesn’t quite end there. Jesus simply says: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
But what does that mean, exactly?
We know that, in the ordinary world, devout, observant Jews avoided such people as much as possible. Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, there is, – coming from Jesus – 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 are not forgotten. In the bitterly divided North African Church of the 4th century, Saint Augustine (354-430), speaking of 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 her 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 another side of that is bringing the good news again to those who may well once have heard it but who, for whatever range of reasons, have rejected or forgotten it or reinterpreted it as bad news.
The power Jesus entrusted to his apostles to bind and to loose includes both authority to expel and authority to readmit. Elsewhere, when Saint Paul 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].
So whatever we are or do – whether as individuals, or as a family, or as a social or political community – and whatever we are or do as a parish or as a Church – the goal (perhaps not always achievable in every instance, but always our goal nonetheless) must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, both here and now and forever in God’s kingdom.
As Cardinal Walter Kasper famously wrote: “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 10, 2017.