The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time September 10, 2017
Ezekiel 33, 7-9 + Psalm 95 + Romans 13, 8-10 + Matthew 18, 15-20
St Peter the Apostle & St William Churches in Naples, FL
In listening to and understanding these verses, it is absolutely necessary to know that the verses immediately before these instructions in Chapter 18 tell the story of the lost sheep with that heartfelt description of the shepherd who goes looking. That story begins with these words: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” With that introduction, Jesus goes on to tell about the man with 100 sheep who leaves 99 to find 1 that has wandered off, and then describe what joy there is when he returns with the lost one.
The instructions given to the church through Matthew’s Gospel for correcting and healing offences provide a very responsible method for governance, and an excellent model for one’s personal life. We all know how not to deal with someone who has offended us. Instead of simply and honestly admitting to the person that they have hurt us giving them a chance to make amends, we withdraw, pout, avoid contact, and then in a kind of second stage, we tell others how we’ve been offended to justify our feelings and maybe gain some pity. Meanwhile nothing happens. In fact, with that method, nothing ever happens that’s good, healing, and healthy. Most of the time if we paid attention to this Biblical wisdom, the first step would be all we need to do. When it comes, however, to community life and community issues, the wisdom and common sense of this method is something worth a try. It ends up with the honest recognition that sometimes having tried every step of the method, there is nothing to do but give up. Only then is that brokenness acceptable. Yet, there is something important to notice at the very end of these instructions. The offender is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector. That instruction is the heart of the matter and the point of this Gospel. It does not say they are to be punished, run off, or treated like an enemy. Remember, it was the Gentiles and Tax Collectors Jesus came include in the Reign of God. They are to be treated as someone who has simply not yet received the message of the kingdom. Not yet – get the point! They never will if they are treated harshly or with meanness. There is an openness to the future implied here.
In sitting with these verses, it becomes possible after a while to shift the focus off the method being proposed and onto the person whose decisions, behavior, convictions, or maybe their belief has led to their departure or this rupture of communion with God and Body of Christ we have become as a Church. Leaving the practice of the faith is not like quitting boy scouts, a school club, the Rotary, or a Country Club. Leaving the Church is breaking the unity we have with Christ. That unity is there because of our oneness. When someone steps out of that unity, something breaks; and often it is the heart of parents who watch their children abandon this source of grace, hope, and its promise of life.
It is painful to bring that experience into the light of the gospel in a parish like ours where so many feel that brokenness and sadness because one or more of your children are not one with us in prayer feasting on the Bread of Life at the table of the Lord. The Word of God speaks to us all today about that experience and reminds us with these instructions on how we are to respond, and perhaps how we ought to feel. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones” is says. This Gospel ends today urging us to pray together about this after reminding us how we should treat those who have left us. It is not over for them the Gospel says, because the Shepherd will find them and bring them home. Comforted and encouraged by this assurance, we might just as well begin the rejoicing even as we pray for those we miss.