Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
The students whose work I evaluate would probably disagree, but it’s my disposition, both by nature and upbringing, to be averse to conflict. The very thought of confrontation puts me ill at ease, and I will go out of my way to avoid saying or doing anything that might hurt another’s feelings or create an unhappy tension between us. I am far too captive to and dependent upon the esteem of others. I want not just to be respected, but liked – by just about everyone.
My past is strewn with occasions where I allowed another’s offense against me or someone else to slide simply because I didn’t care to suffer the discomfort of confronting them. Imagine my consternation, then, when I read this week’s lectionary texts, two of which address in a disturbingly direct manner not just the importance, but the absolute necessity of confronting and speaking truthfully to wrongdoers. Both are absolutely clear about what is at stake: compassionate truth telling is often nothing less than a matter of life and death.
The Old Testament lesson, from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, affords the squeamish a bit of breathing room, at least at first glance. Ezekiel’s mandate to denounce exiled Israel’s disobedience and call for their repentance – for them to “turn back, turn back from [their] evil ways” (v. 11) – though it comes from God, seems terribly particular to Ezekiel’s own Sitz im Leben. He is after all a prophet, a sort of vocational truth-teller. Confrontation is his job: “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them a warning from me” (v. 7, emphases mine). Surely this directive from the sixth century BCE, along with its accompanying warning – if “you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways – their blood I will require at your hand” – should not be generalized to include me, should it?
Whatever margin for avoidance Ezekiel affords, Matthew’s Jesus takes away in the Gospel text, where he seems to be speaking not just to his closest disciples, but to all of us who through the gift of baptism have been made members of God’s ekklesia. Jesus goes well beyond simply commanding his followers to speak truthfully to those who transgress against us or a sister or brother. He offers detailed, practically formulaic instructions for how to do so, telling us first to speak with the transgressor privately, then with the accompaniment of two or three others, and finally, in those cases where agreement cannot be reached or the offender is especially recalcitrant, to make the matter one of public concern involving a conversation among all the members of God’s gathered people. And if the offender remains unwilling to listen to the call for repentance, says Jesus, then he or she is to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.”
These intriguing words Jesus offers in conclusion direct our attention toward what might be at the root of the careful instruction preceding them. The faithfulness – indeed the holiness (which includes the wholeness, or flourishing, or, if you prefer, the shalom) of the straying sister or brother is portrayed in both of these texts as the concern of each one of us, for we have been made members together of the same body, a community in which, as Paul says, “the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
Confrontation and correction are not simply a matter of righting a wrong done against us so that we may once again be at peace, or even of maintaining the integrity of the community and its public witness to God’s intention for the creation. Important as both those concerns may be, yet another matter is at stake here, that being the command, implicit in the Decalogue and made explicit by Jesus, to love our neighbors, those near ones for whose well-being we have been made responsible.
Nothing is more basically constitutive of human well-being than friendship with God, the very source of life and thus of the possibility of flourishing. To sin is to turn away from God, away from the possibility of flourishing, away from the source of life. It is, in fact, to embrace death. As the Catholic moral theologian Paul Wadell puts it, “Sin is notoriously self-destructive, for it attempts to make us into something we cannot possibly be: persons who thrive without God. (Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics, 2nd edition, p 155)
It is axiomatic for Christian discipleship that the call to “love one another” means we owe our sisters and brothers many things, from those requisite to life itself, such as food, clothing, and shelter, to those which make possible a better life for them, such as demanding and working for peace and justice on their behalf. Surely if we purport to love them we have an obligation as well to call to their attention the possibility that their actions are separating them from the very source of life itself – whether it makes us uncomfortable or not.