September 8, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Ezekiel 33:7-9) Reading II (Romans 13:8-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 18:15-20)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, tells us that love of neighbor fulfills the law. And he tells us that love does no evil to the neighbor; therefore, it is for this reason that it fulfills all the laws of God with regard to what we are to do toward others. Obviously, the other part of the law is the love of God. But the question then really has to do with what love is, because there are lots of people who think that loving someone is being nice to them. But Jesus did not say that. In fact, if we look at Jesus Himself, he was not always particularly nice to some of the people. Imagine if Jesus were standing in front of you using some of the terms that He spoke to the Pharisees or the scribes and looked at you and said, "Fraud! Hypocrite! Brood of vipers!" and many of the others that He used. We would walk away saying, "Well, gee, He's not very nice."
Nowhere did God say, "Be nice" - He said, "Love." We must be very careful not to get these things confused. For those of us in this part of the country, we have perfected this to such a degree that we even have a little handle for it, and it is called "Minnesota Nice". It is fake. It is not loving the neighbor; but rather, it is skirting the issue; it is not addressing the reality of the problem. It has become, in fact, what one Protestant minister that I listened to once said, "Being nicer than Jesus." If that is the case, there is something that is not quite right. We have got this idea of a false sense of charity.
And so we need to ask ourselves, "What really is charity?" If we put the readings together today, we have Saint Paul telling us that we have to love our neighbor, and then Jesus telling us part of the way that has to be done: "If your neighbor does something wrong to you, go and tell him. If he refuses to listen to you then bring someone else. If he refuses to listen then bring it to the Church. If he refuses to listen to the Church, treat him as you would a tax collector or a Gentile." That is not very nice. That means putting the person at an arm's distance, backing away even to the point of severing the relationship. We do not like to think about those sorts of things. We do not even like to confront people about the things they are doing wrong, let alone thinking that we might actually have to do something with regards to the relationship. But what exactly is Our Lord telling us? He is telling us that if someone is doing something wrong there is an obligation toward fraternal charity and fraternal correction.
More than anyplace, this is a necessity within marriage for two people who have made a vow that they would love one another. Now we know that there are many couples who will nag one another; that is not love. We know that there are a number of marriages where there are people who will harp on one another endlessly; that is not love either. Love in this sense is pointing out the fault of the other in such a way that it is for the good of the other to try to build the other up. It is not spending your day looking for every little mistake or problem that the other one has; but rather, it is seeking to love in order to make the other a saint, pointing out the faults of the other by helping them to grow, giving them some ideas that they can do to be able to work on overcoming the fault, helping the person to overcome the fault and then being patient with the person as you see that he or she is working on it.
But Our Lord also requires that it go beyond just marriage. He tells the prophet Ezekiel, "If I tell you to tell someone else to change his ways or else he is going to die in his sin, and you refuse to tell him, the man will die in His sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death." Now that does not sound like a very pleasant proposition to us - to think that the Lord would actually ask someone to do such a thing! But that is the prophetic vocation. The prophetic vocation is not about predicting the future; the prophetic vocation is calling people to the Will of God, telling the Will of God to others - whether that be telling them the good that He desires for them, calling them to conversion, or whatever it may be. That is what it means to be a prophet. You may be sitting back wiping the sweat from your brow at this point and saying, "Thanks be to God! He hasn't called me to be a prophet. I donít have to worry about it." May I remind you that because of your baptism you are a priest, a prophet, and a king. The prophetic vocation is a call to each one of us, and so we do have an obligation in charity to point things out to others; but again, in a way that is charitable, not in a way that is demeaning, not in a way that violates the dignity of the other person, but in a way that is designed to help the person to be able to hear or to see what the problem is and to make some changes in their lives so they will be able to live a more virtuous life. That is what this is about.
It is a desire for souls, and that is something which has been all but forgotten in our society. I do not know if it because people just think that everybody is going to Heaven so we do not have to worry about anybody else, or if it is that we have such a lousy attitude and fail in love for neighbor to the point where we would say, "Well, if you want to be condemned, go there! I'm not going to try to help you stay out of it." Whatever the reason is - and I'm not sure what it is; I suspect most of it is just pure and simple selfishness, that is, we do not want to go beyond ourselves to reach out to help anyone else - we have totally lost the zeal for souls. You almost never even hear it spoken. So we need to look at this and think about what our response to Our Lord is going to be. He has called us to a love of neighbor, and part of that love of neighbor is to call people to conversion, to help them make changes in their lives.
This is not to suggest that we are beyond reproach, that we do not sin, and, therefore, that we can point out other's sins. Not at all. We need to be compassionate with people who are sinners. But the reason Jesus tells us to treat the person as we would a tax collector or a Gentile (Saint Paul, in essence, says the same thing elsewhere) is because we should have learned by now that if we hang around with people who are doing things that are wrong it is not going to take long before we are going to be doing the wrong things with them. As someone has pointed out, if you are standing on top of a desk or a platform and someone else is lying on the floor, and you want to help that person get up off the floor so you bend down from the platform upon which you are standing to grab their hand, which is easier, for that person to pull you down or for you to pull them up? You are in a more vulnerable position and it is very easy to get pulled down. And so the Lord is letting us know that we need to do something, that we need to try - we need to point out their faults and help them to overcome it - but if they do not want to overcome it, then He says, "Distance yourself from that individual because, otherwise, you are going to be pulled down."
Obviously, it should go without saying that that particular point does not relate to your marriage. We need to be careful not to try to justify walking away from a marriage because we have tried to point this fault out to the other person and he or she does not want to change and [we say], "Therefore, I guess, the Lord said I could walk away." That is not what He said. But what He is saying is with the people around us, our friends and acquaintances, if they do not want to do what is right then find some other friends, find people who are going to be edifying so that you have the support that you need to be able to continue to grow in holiness and in virtue. In that way, you will be able to help others to rise up because you have the support you need to stay strong.
These are not easy things that Our Lord is calling us to, but He is calling us to holiness, He is calling us to virtue, and He is calling us to truly love the people around us, which is to seek their good, to do what is the best for them. What is the best is that they would stop sinning. What is the best is that they would have a conversion, that they would confess their sins, and that they would be able to go to Heaven. So it is not the best if we sit back and think, "Well, if I say something to this person they might get angry. They might not like me anymore. Therefore, I won't say anything." That is not what Our Lord is calling us to. He is calling us to virtue and He is calling us to help others to achieve virtue in their lives. That is charity. If, on the other hand, what we are doing is judging others and condemning them, that is pride; and we need to condemn that within our own selves first. And so today, the Lord is challenging us to something that is going to make most of us very uncomfortable. He is calling us to go beyond ourselves and to try to help others. The helping of others is not just simply to be able to see them in some kind of physical need and be able to give them some money or a shirt or some food. But rather, what He is doing is asking us to seek the good of their soul, to help them to convert, to help them grow in holiness.
Now one thing in this vein that I should also point out is to remember that Our Lord in the Gospels is very merciful and very lenient when it comes to sins of commission. Look at the woman caught in adultery - He did not condemn her - and so many other places in the Gospel where people sinned and it is the very people who are standing in judgment and condemning them that the Lord condemns, but not the individual who committed the sin. But the place where He has almost no tolerance are the sins of omission: the things that we should have done but refused or failed to do. In those areas, the Lord shows very little mercy and tolerance. And so, if He calls us to point out the faults of others in a charitable manner to help them to grow and we refuse for whatever selfish reason, that is a sin of omission. The Lord will probably not be particularly tolerant with us in those areas.
Today, the Lord levels a challenge. Saint Paul echoes the challenge. God, in the Old Testament, gave His prophets the same challenge. It is not something that is new; it is not something that is beyond us; it is something, however, that is very uncomfortable for most of us - at least for those of us in this part of the country. People on the East Coast seem to be pretty good at it, however, I think they need to temper their style a little bit; but they are very good at pointing out people's faults. Maybe what we need is to combine the East Coast with the Midwest and find a way of being able to point out people's faults in a way that is truly charitable. That is what Our Lord is asking of us. That is what Saint Paul is telling us when he says to love the neighbor and love does no wrong to the neighbor. So it is not with bad intent that we point things out; but rather, it is in charity, seeking the good of the other person, seeking their conversion, loving the person, and wanting what is truly the best for that individual. That is what we are being called to in the Gospel. That is the love of neighbor that Our Lord is requiring of us today.
And I must say that considering Our Lord's words, since He Himself is the One calling us to this, if we refuse, then He is the One who will treat us like a tax collector or a Gentile according to His own words. That is not a pleasant thing for us to think about either. And so we need, each one of us, to make an act of the will to truly love our neighbor. That does not mean to go forth from here today and say, "From now on I'm just going to be nice." Jesus never called us to that, but He has called us to do what is truly the best: to seek the good of the other, to try to build them up to become saints.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.