Ezekiel 33, 7-9 + Psalm 95 + Romans 13, 8-10 + Matthew 18, 15-20
In a world that believes itself to be without sin, these are verses of the Bible to be passed over quickly or studied as a curious method that the early church used for keeping the peace and restoring harmony. In our times, sin is usually something others are guilty of. We see it with horror in the violence of the Middle East. At home we are quick to reduce sin to crimes that deserve justice through the court system which of course does not often mean justice nearly as much as it means punishment. If we take a personal look at our lives, relationships and attitudes, we brush them aside with the excuse that we have issues but stop short of calling them sins. So for many confession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is just a hoop we jumped through to get communion.
Into this thinking slips Matthew 18, 15-20 today with a suggestion has several disturbing ideas. The first of which comes with the word: brother. In other words, this is not about enemies, this is about someone close, a brother. The fact of the matter is, the shallow lives lived by many have no time nor depth to really make an enemy. We may think of terrorists as enemies, but the truth is, we do not even know their names. In the end, that enemy is an ideology and a behavior. Enemies we keep at a distance these days. It is too easy to walk off and dismiss someone who annoys or offends us. Even lovers say to each other: Let’s just be friends. It’s easier that way, no bad feelings.”
The focus of this Gospel is someone close, and as we all know too well, It is those closest to us who hurt us the most and are most difficult to forgive. Forgiving an enemy we do not see day after day is easy stuff. I used to think it was really great of Jesus to forgive those who nailed him to a cross, crowned him with thorns and beat him on the way to Calvary. Late in life I have come to realize how extraordinary it was to forgive Peter, James, and John who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him when he had nothing else to offer them.
When Jesus directs our attention toward sin it is always for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation; never for the sake of revenge or punishment. So this little piece of his instruction to us reminds us that sin is real and it is everyone’s responsibility because everyone is involved and shares responsibility for others. The suggestion is made here that doing nothing in the face of evil is just as wrong as the evil itself. The method is secondary to the insistence that we speak up. Silence in the face of wrong doing is even greater than the wrong itself and it makes the silent one complicit in the wrong-doing. This is the heart of this passage.
At the same time, what is proposed here is a way of staying honest and strong in witness to Christ. Time and tradition has evolved these verses into our Church’s sacramental experience of Confession in which the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and hidden places of the human heart. It brings sin into the light and the silliness of denial is exposed. When expressed and acknowledged, sin loses its power when it is owned as sin. It’s like the addict who re-gains control over their life first by admitting that they are powerless and addicted. In sin we are always alone and helpless. In Confession, we cast off the sin and hand it over to God with the presence and the prayer of another sinner.
Pope John Paul 1 told a story about author Jonathan Swift’s servant. After spending the night in an inn, Swift asked for his boots, which the servant brought to him covered win dust. When asked why they had not been cleaned, the servant replied, “After a few miles on the road, they’ll be dirty again, so why bother.” “Quite right,” said Swift. “Now get the horses and let us be on our way.” “Without breakfast?” cried the servant. “There’s no point,” said Swift. “After some miles on the road, you’ll be hungry again.”
So it is with us and our Confession sacrament. The only way to keep moving deeper and closer to God, the only way to develop an authentic and healthy spirituality is by seeking forgiveness in our spiritual journey. It cannot be a generic or private sort of arrangement that we imagine with God any more than professing one’s love for another is something we never say or express openly to and with others. As good Pope John Paul 1 said, not only does confession result in the forgiveness of sin, it give us the grace, the hope, and the courage to avoid sin in the future which of course is the goal that firms up our relationship with God.