How to Correct Others

(Homily 23rd Sunday, Year A)

This is a good Sunday to talk about a delicate problem: How to correct others who go astray. Jesus speaks about fraternal correction in today's Gospel. And in the first reading the prophet Ezekiel says that he has been "appointed as watchman for the house of Israel." He has the thankless task of trying to "dissuade the wicked from his wicked way." These are somewhat scary readings. Before explaining what they mean, let me first clarify what they do not mean.

We live in a society dominated by gossip. Rumors can spread rapidly and bring down even the most powerful people. Not that we recently invented gossip. Six centuries before Christ, the psalmist asked God to protect him from "accusing tongues." (Ps. 57:4; cf. 64:3; 140:3, etc.) Who does not identify with that prayer? But things are worse today. Instantaneous communication and the dominance of what is called tabloid journalism* have made the problem of gossip more acute. Our social milieu can convince us there is nothing wrong with talking about other people's faults. I have even seen it take on a religious tinge. Some feel they have been anointed to expose wrongdoings. They are playing out a prophetic role. The Catechism has other names for it: calumny, rash judgment and detraction. (See paragraph 2477 for the exact definitions.) All three are sins against the Eighth Commandment. We can sum them in the single word, gossip.

When Ezekiel says he was appointed as a watchman, he did not say God gave him a license to gossip. The key word is appointed. He had a specific God-given office. There are people today who have likewise been appointed. There is no great mystery about who they are. Parents have been appointed as watchman for their children, teachers for their students, a doctor for his patients, a pastor for his parish family, etc. Each has been given the delicate office of guiding and sometimes correcting the ones they are responsible for. It is easy to distinguish that office from gossip. The gossip has no responsibility for the people he criticizes. He does it because it brings him a feeling of superiority, even pleasure. If you think I am exaggerating, please examine your heart next time you are tempted to criticize someone. Is there not a warm pride that you are not like the person under the microscope? And don't you feel an intimacy with the one to whom you tell the secret? It is like a sexual sin, "just between us." But it is a very fragile intimacy because it is based on excluding someone else and that always puts one on the path of creating a smaller and smaller world until arriving at the complete exclusion better known as hell.

The office of watchman is then entirely other than gossip. It involves hard work, willingness to suffer and the desire to build. Jesus lays down a common sense approach in today's Gospel. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him."** (Mt. 18:15) That alone is enough to make one ask, "Is this something I really want to confront?" Maybe this time it's better to just forgive and forget it. Notice that the New Testament speaks hundreds of times about forgiveness, but only a few times on fraternal correction. That is about the proportion we should follow. My old seminary rector, Fr. Foudy, used to say to us, "Boys, choose carefully the barricade you are going to die on." Our bodies only have about five liters of blood. It is a matter of discerning for which noble cause we will shed our allotted portion. Most of the time we are called to simply forgive as God forgives us. But if prayer and reflection convinces you that something more than forgiveness is required, you must be prepared to go all the way. Jesus makes that clear and he outlines the steps. Get the testimony of two or three others. If that does not work go to the church. That means going to the proper authority, the pastor, bishop, not some discussion group. Only then could the most drastic medicine be prescribed: shunning or excommunication. (Mt 18:17; I Cor 5:2ff.) St. Paul considers it medicinal because the goal is always the salvation of the other person, never his ruin.

Jesus' approach is hard for us today. We live in a litigious society. In some ways our present legal environment parallels that of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Anyone can make an accusation and destroy the other person. I saw it happen quite recently. It seems to spring from the following mindset: There are people in our midst who are different from the rest of us. We can barely speak about the things they may be doing. Their diseased condition disfigures them and may spread. The sickness itself is so dark we must rely on experts to identify it and prescribe the proper remedies so the innocent can be protected. To question this frame of mind brings guilt by association. Better to join the crowd and watch the spectacle. This climate has weakened a whole series of relationships. For example, every doctor has to take out a huge insurance policy. The patient is not only someone who needs her care, but a potential legal adversary. No doubt there have been cases of horrendous malpractice, but at the same time the legal milieu has created an uneasy distance, not only between doctor and patient, but between counselor and client, priest and parishioner, even between parent and child. This is so different from what Jesus is talking about today. I am not saying there is never an occasion when one could, almost in desperation, file a lawsuit, but a Christian should carefully read the sixth chapter of Corinthians before proceeding. The pious language litigants use to justify their lawsuit may sound embarrassingly hollow on the day of the true and final judgment.

Our modern culture employs gossip and the threat of litigation to undermine and ultimately to destroy. Jesus' way is the exact opposite: forgiveness and a clear process of reconciliation. Its goal is to build and to save. Brothers and sisters, the choice is yours.

**********

*As distinct from investigative reporting which is sadly lacking today.

**Notice that Jesus does not say once you have talked to your brother, you then have license to tell everyone else. "Well, I am not telling you anything I did not say to his face."

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From Archives (for Twenty-third Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Finding Your Place Week 5
2011: Dissuade the Wicked
2008: He Died in the Trenches
2005: Love and Do What You Like
2002: Why Did No One Stop Him?
1999: How to Correct Others

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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