Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Where two or three are gathered, there are bound to be fights

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year A

Today’s gospel concludes with two promises from the Lord: the first, “if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven,” and the second, “for where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” Both promises are magnificent, but the truth of the matter, as far as our own personal experiences serve as a measure, is that, it does not always work out this way!  Here is my own spin on the saying, “Where two or three are gathered, there are bound to be fights!”  In fact, G.K. Chesterton wrote, in his 1929 book The Thing, that “Catholics know the two or three transcendental truths on which they agree; and take rather a pleasure in disagreeing on everything else.”

One may be scandalised to note that conflict takes place within the Church too. Aren’t Christians supposed to be peace-makers?  Perhaps, but the truth is that conflict crosses all boundaries of religions, traditions, cultures and time. Even in the early Church, even in her earliest days there was conflict. The trouble is that most of us have difficulty dealing with conflict. Yes, there are a few among us that like to stir things up and then, either watch from the sidelines as others battle it out or else, jump right into the drama.  However, most of us find conflict uncomfortable. That is why so many choose to turn away or try to ignore the situation, metaphorically closing our eyes, and thinking that if we pretend we don't see the conflict then it won’t be there. Likewise, many would tend to pit discipline against love, often believing that it is unloving to correct an erring brother. No one wants to be a busy-body and we feel it is best to mind our own business and not meddle in other people’s affairs. In doing so, we hope to avoid conflict.

Our refusal to correct, however, may have less to do with charity than it has to do with a self-serving motive. In all honesty, it’s always difficult to correct because we don’t want to appear as the bad guy. We don’t want to sour existing bonds or ruin friendships. But silence and inaction are never the solution, and they both definitely do not flow from the well-spring of love.  St Paul, in the second reading, writes, “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” Almost everyone would agree that love is the answer but to interpret love as inaction and silence is ludicrous. Love, in fact, places a duty on us to confront the evil that our brother or sister has done. Ultimately, if we truly love them and others who may be hurt and misled by their actions, we must always wish and work for their salvation.

That is what Ezekiel saw in his own prophetic vocation. Being a prophet meant being a concerned brother watching out for his brothers and sisters in the faith. A prophet was considered to be the conscience of the nation, and we know from experience that the conscience often pricks and convicts. Ezekiel, therefore, compared his role to that of a sentinel or watchman who searches the moral horizon for impending disasters and then sounds the warning so that others take heed. He did not relish being thought of as a busy-body who waits to pounce on every fault of his wayward brethren. His vocation flowed from his love of God and his love for his people. He was willing to be the voice of reason and Truth, and even be at the receiving end of hostility and misunderstanding, if only he could convince his brethren to cease following the route to self-destruction. 

In the gospel passage, the Lord provides us with a concrete illustration of how love is translated into fraternal correction. He provides us with a three step approach. First, we are to correct the sinner privately. We go to the person directly with the problem,  instead of sharing it with a multitude of persons – as that’s called complaining, or even worse, gossiping. Then, if he refuses to listen, we bring one or two others in.  Now, this is done not for the purpose of ganging up on that particular person. The purpose of taking a few others is to allow the person a fair chance to speak his mind and defend himself, and perhaps it would be easier for him to listen to the reasoning and advice of several voices, instead of just one.

Finally, if necessary, the sinner must be brought before the Church. If he refuses even the correction of the Church, and if the matter is serious, he is to be treated “like a pagan or a tax collector.” The last stage seems harsh and even at odds with the first two, but a careful reading would reveal that all three stages serve one single purpose. Perhaps, the key to understanding the words of Our Lord would be to see how He actually related with the pagans and tax collectors. If you recall, Our Lord sat and broke bread with both Gentiles and tax collectors. He is the Divine Physician who invites spiritually sick to repentance and wholeness. In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, Our Lord speaks of searching for the one lost sheep. In a sense, brotherly and sisterly correction should follow the same idea. Therefore, correction’s goal is not retaliation but reconciliation, that is, to lead back into the sheepfold the one who has gone astray and who has gotten lost along the way. Fraternal correction, therefore, is not punitive but as St Thomas Aquinas teaches us, “fraternal correction is a work of mercy” and he cheekily adds, “Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”

When the Church seeks to correct us, it is only because she wishes to inspire us to greater fidelity, not less. And when the Church extends the rod of authority, it is not to beat us into submission, but to gather us into the safety of the sheepfold. If the Church seeks to impose its sanction on us, it is only because she wishes to provide the moral parameters for our actions so that we may be guided back to the path of salvation. And that is why we should always be grateful that the Church continues to speak with the prophetic voice of Christ.  For her motivation is never spite or meanness, but Love.

St Paul was right to insist that “love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says that love is the most powerful and powerless of all powers. He writes: “It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.” We cannot force reconciliation. We cannot force conversion or repentance. We cannot make someone love us just because we love them. We cannot force forgiveness even when we beg for it. But we can keep working to love someone, regardless.

Walking the path of love is never easy. The other path which is filled with bickering and jealousy, violence and revenge, hate and fear is often crowded, broad and smoothly paved. Few would always choose to walk the more difficult path of love.  Although few may choose to walk this path, let us be assured once again, “for where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” Yes, we never walk the path of love by ourselves. We are never alone. The One who loves us beyond all telling, the One who ate with sinners, pagans and tax collectors, the One who offers His enemies forgiveness on the cross, walks along with us.

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