Daniel J. Harrington
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Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), Sept. 7, 2008
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Mt 18:15)

Today’s Scripture readings revolve around the themes of sin, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. They remind us that there is always hope, even at our most sinful moments and even for the most sinful persons we may encounter (especially those whom we may know and love).

Today’s responsorial psalm (Psalm 95) alludes to ancient Israel’s murmuring against God and their idolatry in the wilderness at the time of Moses. Even though God had freed them from slavery in Egypt and cared for them as they wandered in the wilderness, these people nevertheless tested God and rebelled against him. Their sin became, for many biblical writers, the archetypal sin. (See Hebrews 3–4 for an extensive early Christian application of Psalm 95.)

The reading from Ezekiel 33 concerns the prophet’s duty to warn the sinners among God’s people. The reason why the prophet should do so is to bring the people to their senses and make them confront their sins. The hope is that they will turn from those sins and be forgiven by God and be reconciled with God.

The passage from Matthew 18 describes the process by which a sinner might be reconciled to God and to the Christian community. There are three steps. If someone sins (not all manuscripts include “against you”), you should first confront that person and point out the fault. If that does not succeed, the second step is to take one or two others along with you so that all of you might bear witness to the sinner’s fault. This sounds something like what we today might call an intervention. If that does not succeed, then you should tell the whole community. And if that does not succeed, the sinner should be cut off (in what we might regard as excommunication). But even this extreme measure seems to have been intended to shock the sinner into recognition, bring about repentance and foster reconciliation.

A similar three-step process was used by the Jewish group that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. We can suppose that other Jewish communities and other early Christian communities did something like what the Matthean community did. The three-step process itself is not what is especially important. What is important is the dynamic that was behind it. The dynamic is one that can move from sin to repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This dynamic reminds us that sin is always a possibility (as Paul indicates in Romans 7), and that even very good persons can fall into bad habits and be overwhelmed by them. Nevertheless, a descent into evildoing need not be irreparable or fatal. Moreover, the three-step process suggests that loving our neighbor may entail at times our calling to account the neighbor or loved one who sins.

The goal of the entire process is not condemnation but restoration. To be forgiven and reconciled, however, demands that one recognize the enormity of sin and repent of it. This is where hope comes in. From a Christian perspective, there is always hope for ourselves and for even the worst sinners. Through God’s grace we can repent, be forgiven and be reconciled to God and to our community.

When we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That statement suggests a causal relationship between our experience of forgiveness from God and our willingness to forgive others. In reciting this prayer we pledge ourselves to be participants in the dynamic of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. If we have experienced this ourselves, we have the obligation to extend it with regard to others. It is part of loving our neighbor.

Paul’s instruction in Romans 13 about love of neighbor and fulfilling the Old Testament law indicates that loving the neighbor may prompt us to confront someone close to us who is clearly doing things that are harmful or sinful.

Echoing the second part of the double love commandment taught by Jesus, Paul contends that if we really love our neighbor as set out in Lev 19:18, then we will not commit adultery, murder, steal or covet another’s property. That is what Paul means when he declares that love is the fulfillment of the Law. Today’s readings suggest that at times love may require an extraordinary willingness and capacity to forgive others and to help them turn from their evil ways.

 

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Ps 95:1-2, 6-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
Prayer: 

• Have you ever participated in an intervention? What happened?

• What is the goal of the three-step process outlined in Matthew 18?

• Can you imagine calling a sinner to account as an act of love?