HOMILY FOR THE 23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Readings: Ez. 33:7-9/Rom. 13:8-10
Psalm: 95: 1-2,6-9
Gospel: Mt. 18:15-20
There was a nun who was devoted to her life in the convent and her devotion to God. During her brief time in the community, she began to notice one of her fellow sisters showing quite a bit of an attachment to the Mother Superior, almost to the point that her time with the Mother was all-consuming. This nun, who had only been there a few years, wanted to say something to this nun who had been there much longer than her, but was concerned that her interference may be detrimental not only to her but also the community. At the risk of her reputation being sullied, she went to her fellow sister and counseled her on the attachment the nun had with Mother Superior and that the sacrifice of one’s self was needed in order for true happiness be found. After the meeting, the sister corrected her ways and became a better nun than she could ever aspire. That young nun who approached the other was St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower.”
What St. Therese did was an example of the Gospel proclaimed today from St. Matthew. The 18th Chapter of his Gospel is an instructional chapter on wrongdoing and forgiveness. It begins with understanding who is the greatest in Heaven and ends with how we must seek forgiveness. During this chapter, the one thread that is throughout is that those who are responsible for spreading the Good News must be genuine in their mission or risk their exclusion from the inner circle of believers. It is a call that Jesus’ disciples had heard before from the Prophet Ezekiel. In the First Reading today, Ezekiel tells the crowds that God commands the Chosen Ones that if He tells a wicked person that they will die and they do not do anything to help that person change their ways, they would be responsible for their death. Yet if they warn the person, and the person refuses to change, then they will be saved.
How this process is being handled was the focus on the Gospel proclaimed today. Jesus begins by saying if there was someone who sins against another, then the one who was wronged will speak to the other in private. If they change their ways, then the matter is over. If they do not, then the one who is wronged brings a few others to hear the testimony. If the person still does not change, then it is to go to the community, the ecclesia or church, for which a decision will be made. If after all that, the person still does not change their behavior, then they would be removed from the main group and treated “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” In other words, while they would not be a part of the group, they are not necessarily shunned by the community, but just that both sides need to step away from each other and re-evaluate their relationship.
This is a way to set up some healthy boundaries that will help each other take stock of where they went wrong and make the necessary adjustments. While we understand our mission as Children of God to preach the Good News, sometimes it takes our brothers and sisters in the faith to help us with our task when we go astray, and vice versa. When we set up those boundaries, they are not just to keep people away. They are a way to help both sides to clear their minds and hearts so, over time, they can come closer to God and, perhaps, with each other. There was an 6th Century Irish monk who was had a passion for learning everything he could about God and His Church. He was a voracious reader and would get his hand on any book that he could. One day, he noticed the Abbot had a copy of the Psalms and wanted desperately to read it and possibly to copy it. This monk would travel from monastery to monastery wanting to borrow or copy as many books as he could. Most of the time, he was met with very little success. When the monk asked the Abbot for permission to copy his Psalter, the abbot refused. Outraged, he snuck the psalter out of the bookcase and transcribed the book. Once the Abbot found out, he went to the monk and demanded that he return the copy to him. The monk refused. After much debate amongst the monastery, the matter was forwarded to the King of Ireland. The King sided with the Abbot with the pronouncement “To every cow its calf.”
That didn’t sit well with the monk, who decided that he would gather as many friends and family that he could and waged war with the King’s Army. It was a bloody battle that cost many lives on both sides. After the war was over, a synod was held to deal with this monk and his behavior. It was concluded that he would be exiled from Ireland to re-settle in Scotland. While he was there, his heart that was once vindictive and cruel became tender and sincere. He made a vow that he would save the souls of the same number that were lost in the battle that he started. He settled on an island in Northern Scotland and began a religious community that is still in existence today and is well-known for its hospitality and devotion to God and all of His creation. That community is known as Iona and the Monk was St. Columba.
We as a society today have a weakness in embracing conflict, mainly as a way to gain favor from those we wish to gain favor. This sentiment caused one commentator to remark that it is some sort of right or privilege in American society to solve any and all problems with conflict and/or violence. It is like some badge of honor. I remember one time I was at the Kentucky Derby in 2013. I had my rain jacket with the Notre Dame logo on it. I was looking around at the crowd while I was walking to the paddock and I hear someone make a comment about the jacket. I looked up and there was a guy wearing an Alabama shirt. (Remember this was just a few months after the BCS Championship where Notre Dame lost). I acknowledge the game and offered my congratulations, but the guy would not let it go. He would keep on how Alabama was such a better team, has better players, a better coach and on and on. I finally said my goodbye and walked away. He wasn’t talking to me because of a game. He was boasting the importance of his allegiance to a place that, like me, was not a student of the place, just a fan.
Could the structure that Jesus laid out have helped in that situation? Perhaps not. But I use this as an example of someone who would rather show his importance over another than celebrate the importance of the moment. Like St. Columba, this guy felt he was entitled to show how important he was and felt compelled to let me know how important he was. I don’t know if our separation changed the way he behaved, but thinking back on that reminded me of the psalm today: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” When we know something that is right, we have a habit of being superior to another. When it comes to understanding the Word of God, we run the risk of holding it inside and not using it to help others, but only as a mark of identity. Our hearts become hardened to the problems of the world and allow our faith to become stagnant. Only when we have a loving heart can we allow the Word of God to grow. Without growth, the stagnant attitude remains, and the sin of pride is planted in our souls.
Instead of embracing conflict, Jesus wants us to embrace conversation. The path to that conversation is what we heard today. It is the path that most conflicts in Christianity are resolved. It is also a way to resolve conflicts within ourselves as well. Whenever we think we are going down a path that is just not right, then we ask ourselves if this is the right thing to do. If we are still not sure, we ask friends or family. If we are still conflicted, we can ask the Church. Finally, if it still does not feel completely right, we can walk away from it and not be burdened by its hold in our lives. These guidelines along with the Word of God need to be used as a baseline, not as a finish line. Only then can our actions bring growth into our lives. We can only hope and pray that when these guidelines are used, we use them like St. Therese and be successful. But if they are used on us, let us hope and pray we, like St. Columba, will finally see the error of our ways and turn our hardened hearts into loving hearts.
MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK
Questions for Reflection:
- If you could go back and use this guideline to avoid conflict, what would it be?
- How does one behave toward someone “as they would a Gentile or a tax collector?”
- Can you remember a time when “setting healthy boundaries” between you and another actually made things better?