Fraternal Correction (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), 2020-09-06)

Father MIKAEL SCHINK S.J.
Sermon for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
6 September 2020, St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm
Matt. 18:15–20

 

+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

The final verse of today’s gospel is unfortunately often gravely misunderstood. I am speaking of the famous saying of Jesus that ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be with them’ (Matt: 18:20). This verse is regularly instrumentalized to justify a kind of theological relativism. One interprets it in terms of the 1970s cliché that ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, and that’s OK’, i.e. it doesn’t matter what you believe or how you live your life – as long as you regard yourself as a Christian.

We all immediately realize the absurdity of this view. Perhaps we are reminded of another saying of Jesus earlier in Matthews Gospel:

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ (Matt. 7:21)

Similarly, if nothing else than the saying of the name of Jesus would be required for communion with him, his teaching and doctrine would be completely superfluous. But in that case, how can it be that Jesus warns against false prophets with the saying:

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matt 7:15)

I once heard a story about a man who had been practicing meditation in a Christian group for a longer period of time. The meditation consisted in saying the name of Jesus interiorly with each breath. Once after a meditation session he said to the group that he was very satisfied with the meditation and how things were going, but he didn’t really understand why they were using the word “Jesus” as a mantra.

This story illustrates that the name of Jesus is generally not enough to have a relationship with Christ. One also needs to know Jesus, believe in his teachings, imitate his life and receive him in the sacraments. More specifically, we need to be united with Christ through the obedience of faith and the bond of charity. We need to believe in what Christ teaches, a teaching that is transmitted to us through the doctrine of the Catholic Church. And we need to be united with him in charity by avoiding at least mortal sin. If we commit a mortal sin, we should go to confession to receive God’s forgiveness and be filled with charity and united with Christ again.

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Also the context of the verse ‘Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be with them’ shows that it cannot be read in a relativistic sense. It is rather the culmination of a passage dealing with fraternal correction, Church discipline and the authority of the apostles.

Jesus says that when a fellow Christian or brother does something wrong, we should correct him. This echoes the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. The Lord says to Ezekiel:

‘If I say to a wicked man: Wicked wretch, you are to die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death.’ (Ezek. 33:8)

The language is strong and prophetic. The talk of death refers to the spiritual death caused by mortal sin. The whole reason for the language of mortal sin is that it kills charity in us and thereby separates us from Christ by a kind of spiritual death, the same spiritual death that Adam and Eve were sentenced to after their first sin in the Garden of Eden.

As God commands the prophet Ezekiel to warn and correct the wicked, so the Lord commands us to practice fraternal correction and thereby encourage each other mutually and lead each other back to Christ.

But we know from experience that this is not always possible because people are unwilling to listen. Saint Thomas Aquinas comments in a different context that this was one reason why there is a hierarchy in the Church, because since the Church is the body of Christ, there must be a principle of unity and government in the body, and this is the episcopate and the ultimately the pope, who has power over the whole Church (IV Sent. 24.3.2.3 and ad 1). Therefore, Christ gives the apostles the authority to bind and to loose:

‘I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ (Matt. 18:18)

When we meet in the name of Christ, we should therefore not only be united in faith and charity but also by being members of his mystical body, which is the Catholic Church.

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Saint Augustine comments on fraternal correction that we often avoid to admonish or to teach others, either because it is bothersome or because we wish to avoid conflict or being unpopular (City of God, book. 1, ch. 9). This reminds us that we are called to give witness to Christ not only to the world outside but also in the Church itself. We all know about people going astray, we all have friends who are lapsed Catholics, we all know people who once believed but later chose a path in life that lead them away from the Church of Christ.  We must therefore often overcome ourselves and find the courage and fortitude to talk to them and bring them back to the Church.

But we need not only fortitude but also prudence. Pope Francis reminds us that we should ‘avoid needlessly humiliating the sinner’ and that ‘words too can kill’ (Angelus, 7 Sept. 2014). We must therefore seek the proper occasion for correction so that we do not worsen the aversion against the Church or add another impediment for conversion.

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Let us therefore turn towards the Lord and pray for the grace of charity, so that we can grow in union with him and lead others back to communion with him, he who is the ultimate end of our lives, the end towards which we are striving while still here on earth. + Amen.

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