Sep 6, 2020: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Ezekiel 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD:
You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.
If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, “
and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death.
But if you warn the wicked,
trying to turn him from his way,
and he refuses to turn from his way,
he shall die for his guilt,
but you shall save yourself.

Today’s first reading is one of Ezekiel’s commissioning stories.

In the Old Testament, the prophets had the responsibility that we see Jesus give to the disciples and to the church in today’s gospel: prophets were to teach what is true and call people to fidelity.

Thus says the LORD: You, son of man,

The phrase “son of man” does not mean the same here as it does in the well-known passage from the book of Daniel (7:13-14). In that passage, the word for “man” is ĕnôsh, which has the connotation of weakness or vulnerability. It is a word that underscores the divide between the human and the divine. The one who comes on the clouds is said to be like the offspring of human weakness or vulnerability.

In the present passage, the word for man is ādām, the generic term that is translated “humankind.” Thus, when God calls Ezekiel “son of ādām,” he is simply identifying him as a member of the human race, not as an apocalyptic or eschatological figure.

I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.

In the cities and towns of Biblical times, the watchmen on the city walls or out on the hills were the vanguard of the people’s defense system. They were responsible for sounding a warning when there was danger.

This role becomes a metaphor for the responsibilities assigned by God to Ezekiel, a priest who was God’s emissary to the covenant people in exile (Ezekiel 1:2). He was to listen to what God says and warn the people when they were in spiritual danger: danger from sin within the covenant community.

If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.  But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

God will hold Ezekiel responsible if he does not protect the people by means of his proclamation. Regardless of how well or ill others receive his message, he will keep his integrity and fulfill his responsibility by speaking out. They will be punished, but he will not be.

The wording implies there is still time for the people. The sinner can still be called back from sin. However, this all depends upon the fidelity of the prophet to his call to be a watchman. This is the same obligation that rests with the ordained priesthood today.

2nd Reading – Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery;
you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, “
and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this saying, namely,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

This week we continue our study of Romans. Last week, Paul was urging the Romans to offer themselves to God as a living sacrifice. He has now moved on to describe how the Romans should live, given the fact that they have been called and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

Most people consider John the Evangelist as the Christian writer who emphasizes love as the centerpiece of his teaching, seldom associating Paul with this message. However, the epistle reading for today shows that Paul teaches the very same message of love. In fact, it is the core of the gospel message.

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;

The passage opens with a double negative (mēdeni mēdén), which provides emphasis to Paul’s injunction. Paradoxically he tells the Christians of Rome that on the one hand they should owe nothing, while on the other hand they should owe everything, for love requires total self-giving.

The debt of love is not an obligation that can be paid once for all. It is more like interest for which we are always liable.

for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

Love is the central requirement of Christian life.

“Paul wants us to have peace with everyone and love the brethren. Then we shall not owe anybody anything. He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law of Moses. The commandment of the new covenant is that we should love our enemies as well. [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 13,8]

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,”

Paul cites several commandments taken from the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:17-21).

and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul may be echoing the saying of Jesus in Mark 12:28-32, in which Jesus sums up the Mosaic law with Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. In other words, this is not a new teaching; it was a teaching in the old Law that was affirmed by Jesus in the new Law.

As with his argument about the superiority of faith over obedience, Paul does not dismiss the importance of fidelity to these commandments. Rather, he maintains that they are fulfilled in the act of loving.

Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

In Leviticus 19:18 “neighbor” refers to fellow Jews, but Jesus and Saint Paul give it a wider meaning. As Jesus explained to the lawyer who asked who his neighbor might be, the neighbor is also one with whom we have very little in common, perhaps even a former enemy (Luke 10:29-37). Following the teaching of Jesus, the love Paul exhorts is to be extended to all people without exception. It is no wonder that he begins and ends this passage with the same bold statement: Love fulfills the Law. 

“If you love somebody, you will not kill him. Nor will you commit adultery, steal from him or bear false witness against him. It is the same with all the other commands of the law: love ensures that they are kept.” [Origen (post A.D. 244), Commentaries on Romans]

Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that ‘every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again, amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”

This week we move ahead in Matthew’s gospel to the middle of Jesus’ fourth major discourse, in which he teaches how to handle various community problems (Matthew 18:1-35). Between last week’s reading and today’s, Jesus has been transfigured before Peter, James, and John, he has continued to give authority to his words through powerful acts of healing, he has again warned his disciples of his coming death, he has taught them to avoid anything that causes them to sin, and he has told them the parable of the lost sheep.

The issue addressed in today’s passage is the procedure to be followed when dealing with an erring member of the community. In fact, reconciliation within the community was such a pressing concern that it became a matter of church discipline.

Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

The process, which consists of four steps, has roots within the Jewish tradition. Two aspects of this framework are striking: it is based on standards and it employs a wise progression.

First, the one who is erred against goes privately to the erring one in an attempt to resolve the situation — a strategy based on the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:17. Speaking only to the sinner protects their reputation, which is important because harming someone else’s reputation unnecessarily is in itself a sin. This should be done in a way that won’t humiliate the offending person.

Both this gospel passage and the Holiness Code suggest that this kind of correction is a form of love.

If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If the first approach is not successful, the injured one, in the company of one or two community members, should return to the erring one. The situation has now moved from an exchange between two people to one that is somewhat formal and juridical — an approach based on Deuteronomy 19:15.

The purpose of the witnesses is not to help prove the person wrong, but to add weight to the exchange and aid in the process of reconciliation.

The key to the whole process is it being motivated by a spirit of forgiveness; importantly, we must also welcome corrections of our own faults from others.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

Only if the sinner continues to refuse to listen should the matter be brought to the attention of the whole church. The Greek term here for “church” is ekklesia, denoting the local Christian community (i.e., not the universal Church); in all the gospels, this term is only used here and in Matthew 16:18. This means the procedure is prescribed for the entire local community, not just the leaders.

Note that this process avoids going to the civil courts — courts settle nothing concerning personal relationships and can, instead, cause further complications.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

Remaining recalcitrant to the church is very drastic and should be unheard of, as there is no higher authority which to appeal.

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

A severe punishment is exacted: the community is to treat this person like an outsider, like a Gentile or a tax collector. Excommunication, or exclusion from the community, is a serious step that is taken only where the welfare of the community is at stake.

On the surface, it seems that Matthew’s intent is to give the church permission to simply expel such a person. However, on Jesus’ lips, the words take on a different meaning, given that the gospels call Jesus a friend of sinners and tax collectors. Remember, Jesus healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman, a Gentile, and called a tax collector to be one of the twelve apostles. He reconciled many sinners with the heavenly Father: Mary Magdelene, Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman taken in adultery, and others. Even those who represent stereotypes of the marginalized have the potential to be full-fledged members of the body of Christ.

Therefore, to treat someone as a “Gentile or a tax collector” is not to hate that person or refuse forgiveness. Rather, it is to accept that the person is not presently a visible member of the community. If after undergoing this process, a person is marginalized, they are actually self-marginalized by refusing to listen to the church.

Reconciliation with the church, as with Jesus, depends on the sinner’s willingness to reform. If after the community has tried its best, a sinner refuses to make the necessary corrections, the sinner must be treated differently. Otherwise, as with Ezekiel, we share the blame.

This may seem incompatible with Jesus’ earlier teaching (echoed by Paul in today’s second reading) about loving our neighbor as ourselves. However, the goal of this marginalization treatment of sinners is not to punish but to bring someone to his or her senses. It is an act of love to do whatever one can do to help another person realize the grave nature of sin, to repent, and to return to right relationship with God and with the community.

Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The apostles are given the power to bind and loose, the same power that was given to Peter in Matthew 16:19. Note that there is one significant difference: they have not been given the keys. This symbol of authority has been reserved for Peter as the chief apostle and first Pope.

Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

Jesus assures the community that when they face divisions, if they meet, pray, and come to agreement, God will affirm (or “grant”) that agreement.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

When the members of the church gather in Jesus’ name to discern God’s will, struggle with a problem until they reach agreement, and then decide to act, they have the authority to implement that decision.

A similar idea is found in early Jewish writings: “If two sit together and the words of the Law [are] between them, the divine Presence (the Shekinah) rests between them” (Mishnah Aboth, 3:2).

From the very beginning, the Church has practiced communal prayer. “All those with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). This does not obviate the need for individual prayer, but rather supports and strengthens it.

By means of this statement, Jesus promises to be present in his Church if the members turn to him for guidance. United prayer is a powerful, sensible, and effective tool indeed in navigating relationships within the body of Christ.

Connections and Themes

Both the gospel reading and the first reading are concerned with the duty of the righteous to correct sinners in their faith communities. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is even told that he will be held accountable for the souls of the covenant people who are sinners if he fails to speak out in trying to correct their bad behavior. This is the love that Saint Paul says we owe to our friends and neighbors in the second reading. To obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves is to be concerned for their salvation.

Further, God established Ezekiel as the watchman over the house of Israel, and Jesus established his apostles and disciples as guardians of the salvation of the “new Israel” that is his Church.

Reconciliation.  It is not always easy to call people to an accounting of their behavior. It is hard enough for parents and teachers to do this, but it is especially difficult when those over whom we exercise this responsibility are otherwise our peers. Yet sometimes this is what disciples are required to do — a heavy but necessary cross to bear.

Differences of opinion, misunderstandings, and actual offenses tend to alienate people. If this negativity is allowed to continue, bitterness may set in and actual division result. We see this happen in families, in neighborhoods, in parish communities, in workplaces. It is not enough to say we must try to forgive from our hearts. The process of reconciliation requires significant movement toward the admission of guilt as well. Both the one offended and the offender must be willing to be transformed. As disciples, we must not only be agents of the reconciliation of others but especially must do our part in repairing the rifts in our own lives — a very difficult task to accomplish.

Prayerful collaboration.  Gathering two or three together in prayerful collaboration is not as easy as it sounds. It has been said that the ministerial cross of the present day is committees. This is the case not just because they take up our time but because they require so much more of us. If collaboration is to be effective we have to be open and honest about our own opinions and our biases and also respectful of the opinions and even the biases of others.  We must work for the common good and not merely for what we personally think is best. We must be willing to accept and implement decisions with which we may not totally agree, and we must live with them gracefully.

Genuine love.  We normally acclaim love as the highest form of human expression, and it is. However, as glorious and satisfying as love may be, it is more demanding than anything else in life.

Love will take different forms depending upon the circumstances. Love is faithful to its commitments, and it respects the commitments of others, so adultery or any other form of infidelity will be out of the question. Love holds life in high regard; it overcomes anger and revenge, and so it cannot entertain any thought of killing. Love respects the property of others and so it will not condone stealing or dishonesty of any kind. Love honors the rights of other people, and so it does not entertain thoughts of covetousness.

When one truly loves another, one desires only what is good for that loved one. It is only because love is so demanding that it covers all our responsibilities. When we truly love, we are willing to carry the crosses that discipleship requires.

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