Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 18:15-20
This Sunday’s first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel and the Gospel passage both consider the difficult topic of “fraternal correction,” as it is often called; that is, brotherly or sisterly correction. Who of us likes to be corrected? Didn’t we have our full-share of that as children and adolescents? Maybe, or even likely so, but that doesn’t change the reality of living with others, in family, community, Church. No man is an island, as the poet John Donne pointed out, and that means we live with others and there are inevitable disagreements, conflicts and the like. How do we resolve these and move on?
The second reading for this Sunday, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, while not directly addressing the topic of correcting others, does express the basic and important attitude of love that the follower of Christ must always and everywhere extend to others.
While the Prophet Ezekiel emphasizes the obligation of correcting one’s neighbor, Saint Paul shows the proper attitude in doing so. Paul says it so well: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Furthermore, “Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”
When we act with genuine love, we are not set on winning an argument, putting another down or proving that “I am right and you are wrong.” Love is virtue of the will, not of the intellect. In other words, we have to choose to love, even if instinctively we want to take revenge, humiliate or shame another. It is always wrong to shut down others by our forceful language or deeds. Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, as Saint Paul says.
The intention of love is to unite, so in the matter of correcting another, how we are perceived by the one corrected and how we are speaking to him or her, is crucial. What we say must make sense to the person as we try to be conscious of their perspective, which will likely be different from our own. We also must be willing to acknowledge the inherent good of the other, encouraging the good so that it may thrive. By correcting others with love, then we are affirming what is already of value within them.
When all is said and done, it has to be admitted that correction is rarely, if ever, easy. It can be mildly or terribly difficult and awkward. Correcting might mean risking the loss of a friendship or alienating the other. However, that can’t be an excuse for ignoring what might need to be pointed out to another, in the context of the commandment of love. Love means that we are in this endeavor together, that we are united in family and community, and as the saying goes, we sink or swim together.
Suppose our attempts at correcting go unheeded or even totally rejected. What then? If another rejects our well-intended correction, offered in love, we might appeal to the larger family, of “two or three witnesses,” as the Gospel texts expresses it, or even the total family of the “church” or community. This does not mean doing so hastily or taking one to criminal court. Rather, it is an appeal coming from love and respect, bolstered by discretion, prayers and intercession.
This fact dovetails well with the conclusion of the Gospel passage for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” Our attempts at love need to include the infinite love of the Lord as well, whom we readily meet in prayer.
In another place in the Gospels, Jesus describes the good shepherd as one who seeks out the lost sheep. We too must continue to look for and seek the return of the straying to the flock, assisting others to be reconciled and at peace with the larger body of family, community or Church.
This also means admitting that we too are capable of doing wrong, committing sin and being lost. We all need to humbly accept the loving corrections other may make of us, to help us overcome our wrong-doing, stubbornness, short-sightedness, prejudice, etc. In this way, we can together sing God’s praises and experience the joy of God’s shepherding hand.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB
(With special acknowledgement of the commentary on this Sunday’s readings, by the late Father Carroll Stuhlmueller, of the Congregation of the Passion, for inspiration in crafting the reflection above