Admonishing the Sinner

The Gospel answers the question 'who am I to judge?' by saying it's the Church’s job

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Faith Morals

Critics sometimes argue that among the deficiencies of contemporary homiletics there is a prominent lack of moral content and instruction. That should not have been the case with last Sunday’s Gospel and readings. I will spell out why.

Last Sunday’s Gospel can be misread if it is reduced to a kind of theological soundbite: “when two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst.” While that’s true, when that verse is amputated from the rest of that Gospel, its meaning is turned on its head. It’s not just a “nice thing” that “two or three” pray together, all summed up in “love.” That’s a superficial reading of a Gospel that is quite “unwelcoming” and that even answers the question “who am I to judge?” by saying that it’s the Church’s job.

The Gospel addresses the problem of fraternal correction. Fraternal correction is, indeed, a problem today, in the sense that we don’t want to engage in it. We let false appeals to “hypocrisy” intimidate us from speaking the truth in love.

None of us is perfect. We all have faults and flaws, often in the very areas we notice in others. Perhaps it’s because “we teach best what we most need” and there is always the danger that duplicity alienates others from the values we seek to advance. Jesus warned us about “beams” and “motes” in eyes and the necessity of working first and foremost on ourselves. The corrosive effect of hypocrisy is evident in the Church’s sex scandal and makes absolutely clear we first need to work on ourselves.

All that said, sometimes we must engage in correction of others. Parents, for example, cannot transfer that duty to others. And this is not “judgmentalism.” Our age rightly focuses on God’s mercy, but mercy is not the same as indulgence. Among the spiritual works of mercy, the Church traditionally numbers “admonishing the sinner” and “instructing the ignorant.” That’s what fraternal correction is.

Last Sunday’s Gospel provides a sober, multi-step process of fraternal correction. It starts with the individual believer, face-to-face with the other, offering his correction between four eyes. But, if that fails, Jesus then calls on more cameral witness: bring one or two others as witnesses to the correction. It’s not just prudence; in the Old Testament, testimony depended on corroboration by at least two persons. So, already, Jesus is connecting fraternal correction with a more formalized process. Failure at that level accelerates the matter to the “Church.” Failure to heed the Church leads to “treating him as you would a tax collector.” Immediately following this four step process is a repeat of what we heard in the Gospel two weeks ago: mention of the Church’s power of binding and loosing.

Only then does the Gospel turn to the “positive” side of the story: “when two or three are gathered in my name…” Note that this “gathering” is not self-initiated. It is not the people who “gather” as much as the Spirit who “gathers them.” Fr. Paul Scalia emphasizes that the Bible speaks of being gathered “into” (εἰς τὸ) His Name (Mt 18:20), which means that the gathering community preexists and is not merely constituted by the gathering. Because God “gathers us” into His Church, both fraternal correction and prayer have an essentially ecclesiastical character. This is not ad hoc prayer; it is part of the lifeblood of the ecclesial community, whose membership entails moral standards that are the criteria of its welcome and the justification, on sufficiently grave grounds of violation, for exclusion. Any attempts to water down those truths in favor of some amorphous “welcome” is not theology but ideology, something the Pope warns us against.

Fraternal correction is alien to our times because of the dictatorship of relativism. A society that babbles about “my truth” and “your truth” but is indifferent if not agnostic to “the truth” will not want correction. Truth impinges on “autonomy” because it holds the latter to account, something modern self-spinners of moral norms do not like.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of morality focuses on the “golden mean.” He argues that most vices represent an imbalance between excess or defect with regard to some principle or virtue, e.g., we can sin against temperance by overeating or by over-dieting (though the latter probably affects fewer people).

In the case of fraternal correction, Fr. Scalia has rightly noted that we can err by veering too far in the name of “truth” or “love.” I put those terms in quotes because, by disconnecting one from the other, what we veer towards is usually a false image of what it claims to be. If we overemphasize “love” of the other to the degree that we fail to speak truth to him, we also fail to love him. But if we overemphasize “truth” at the expense of charity, our severity is often not so much motivated by love as a moral superiority that should invite us to assess our own pride. Truth and love go together inseparably; what God has joined let men not put asunder.

This vision of fraternal correction was not new with Jesus. In the first reading, Ezekiel makes clear that one’s responsibility for another member of God’s Chosen People, an errant Jew, required one to speak the truth to him about mending his ways. Failure to do that, resulting in the sinner persisting—even dying—in his sins, puts responsibility on the one who failed him, too. Salvation is not a solo sport: we are in this together. Welcome into God’s Chosen People is primarily a vertical matter, and the demands of holiness have concrete moral content. It is a novelty to emphasize the horizontal, the time-bound, experiential “welcome” that displaces, in practice if not theory, the moral message of metanoia as prerequisite to being part of that People. Being “in His Name” and in the Church requires a checking of certain baggage, not its retention with one’s self.

The same kind of superficial reading of the Gospel threatens the Second Reading as well. St. Paul reminds us that the Law is summed up perfectly in love. But he also makes clear that “love” is not an empty tent to be filled by whatever content one or one’s times think is “loving.” Love is not a balloon to be filled by whatever gas one wants. “Love is love” may be a slogan, but it’s not true. Paul is clear love has a content, and that content is in the Commandments. “Love” divorced from that moral content is not “love” but a slogan.

Finally, the seriousness of life is emphasized in the Responsorial Psalm: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” The call of morality is the call of God: God calls us to a relationship with Him based on a moral content, summed up in love. Unlike other ancient religions, Judaism and Christianity were distinct in emphasizing that relationship to a Personal God has moral content. God is not Zeus, bigger than man but with the same (if not worse) moral warts.

So when God calls us — because whatever good we do is always first an act of God’s grace — we are called to respond. Because the only times assured to us are the present (“now”) and the end of our lives (“the hour of our death”), the time to respond is now. This is the kairos, the moment of opportunity and grace. And, because grace is a gift and therefore not owed, don’t lose the opportunity God gives you.

Last Sunday’s Collect prayed for “true freedom.” That obviously means there must be a thing like “false freedom” and, in our world, there is. When freedom becomes an end in itself, divorced from the good and merely identified as the good, we are dealing with a false freedom. The contemporary “ethic of choice,” especially in matters sexual, is its most prominent example. Such a vision of freedom makes the good disappear, anointing whatever I choose to be “good.” The problem, of course, is that human experience makes clear many choices we make are evil, which renders false the conflated identification of “good” and “free.” Freedom serves not to make the good but to make the good mine. If we appreciate that, we serve “true freedom” as members of the Church, gathered by His Spirit, who welcome and correct each other in love and truth.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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