Abbey 2011 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – A
Last Sunday when we gathered in Jesus’ name, he told us to take up our cross and follow him. Taking up the cross was to be the sign that you and I are joined to him, related to him. Today Jesus points to a very real and common experience in Christian community where taking up the cross is necessary. It is the painful task of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to an offending brother or sister. It is in the process of healing broken relationships that discipleship shows its very real and practical meaning. Life in common, even life in common among Christians, is not easy. We rub each other the wrong way; our speech can easily offend; our anger can strike out; we are prone to gossip, to tell stories about others that do not reflect the best in them or ourselves. None of us can yet count ourselves exempt from the need to bind up interpersonal hurts. And it is these interpersonal hurts, these offenses that Jesus is speaking about when he says, “if your brother or sister sins against you.”
Jesus outlines a three step process for approaching an offending person. It would have been a process that his Jewish audience and followers would have been familiar with. It is based on approaches outlined in the Old Testament and the later rabbinic tradition. It is also a process that might not work for every case. But we must engage in the process regardless. From the outset it is clear that the process of healing is initiated by the one who is offended. This may be hard work for some. It may be that silence is the easier option, but this is not always the best way forward. What are striking in all steps of the process are the personal elements. The reconciliation is done face to face as it were. The word dialogue comes to mind. The process of coming together is not conducted by mail, post or email, through the newspaper or even lawyers. It cannot be done while hiding behind someone else. In the first step especially, we hear of no third party to come in. It is one on one. There is here a principle of gospel subsidiarity. You don’t bring to the large group or the higher ups what must be done between two individuals. Your hurt and your forgiveness are worked out at home, as it were. Only slowly are others brought into the process and this only if no hearing is taking place. The personal element and the one on one preserve honor and dignity. You are carrying your cross and not forcing others to carry it for you.
There is a key word in all three steps of the process. In fact it says a lot or even everything about how this process works. It is a matter of “listening.” Can the offending party and the offended party listen to one another? This certainly rules out shouting as an option; it rules out judgmental words and behavior; it rules out any attitude of putting the other person in their place. It involves humility and admission of where I went wrong. It demands the humility of listening, of getting myself out of the way. This is perhaps the hardest part of this process of healing and reconciliation. It is also the most necessary. We are often over whelmed by our hurt, angry at the offender and ready to justify ourselves. But the way of Jesus is clearly a way of listening. It is very practical too. It means I have to keep quiet, not do all the talking, and treat the other with respect. He or she may be an offender, but God looks equally on all. The hard work for the offender is to hear the situation from another point of view and not be quick to excuse, to push off responsibility for one’s actions.
Jesus makes it clear today that healing up relationships in the Christian community is the responsibility of all. We remember that a few Sunday’s ago Jesus gave Peter keys to the Kingdom for binding and loosing Now Jesus offers the keys of binding and loosing to the community. Binding up relationships between members, helping members to walk straight, helping them listen and understand is not Peter’s work only; the responsibility lies within the community. Healing offenses, calling each other to be accountable for our behavior is a task for all. We are, as Paul says, members of one Body. Here in Matthew it says we are members of one Church and bear responsibility toward each other for how we interact. Jesus goes so far as to say that when community members are praying for healing, praying for a member, for one who has gone astray, then he is there in their midst to hear their prayer and to continue his ministry of healing. When the community is involved in bringing members back together because they belong to Christ, then the Risen Lord is very much present with them.
We can find many places where Jesus says he can be found: in the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the prisoner and homeless. He is also found with the sinner and tax collector–eating with them no less! Today Jesus assures us of his presence as we work together to heal the offenses between us. Listening with humility to a fellow Christian who is telling us of how we have hurt him or her, is not just some exercise for a better world. It is an experience of Jesus in our midst; it is a moment when the power of the cross to heal and reconcile is working. We are coming very close to the heart of Jesus care and love for us.
All this effort to heal, to forgive, to accept a wrongdoing is a necessary part of Christian life together. It is just as relevant now as it was in the days of Jesus and Matthew. We can look around us in our own days and see and hear how perhaps we have not followed the personal approach in confronting others about their wrongs; how we have not put dialogue first as the way forward; how we have judged and condemned before listening; how we have nottaken time to sit face to face.
There are two small but key words in the gospel proclaimed today. One is “listen” and the other is “win over.” Both refer to the ultimate goal of interpersonal relationships and communication. What we strive for is community where all are respected, where, sinner or not, the dignity of God’s image is acknowledged and even reverenced. And the aim of confrontation with the offender and the challenge of accepting responsibility is to gain someone back, to bring someone back into the abundant life and joy of the community. Permanent exclusion is not the goal.
Paul sums it all up today when speaking about the commandments that involve interpersonal behavior and responsibility. He says that in the end we owe no one anything, except to love. For to love means that our lives are at peace, at peace with others and at peace with the world. Loving here is the most profound form of respect and caring.
Today Jesus shows us the nitty-gritty of what that loving means. He shows just where our responsibility lies: in dealing with the troublesome, the offender. When we are doing that and praying over it, then he is with us, Emmanuel, in our midst. Then we are truly fulfilling the law.