Peace be with you and welcome to our celebration of the Mass for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. You know folks, as I sat down and read this Gospel reading today and meditated on it for a while, personally, I was a little confused. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people how thankful we should all be because Jesus Christ let us off the hook about judging others. I mean right here in Matthew’s own Gospel back in Chapter 7 Jesus says clearly, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” Oh, by the way, his guidance about non-judgementalism is a common thread throughout all four Gospels. Today however, we just heard Jesus give his disciples guidance that sounds an awful lot like they are supposed to judge and then take action based their success. So, what gives here Lord? Are we supposed to be judgmental Christians or non-judgmental Christians? And what am I supposed to do with this kind of a question during an 8- or 9-minute homily?
Well, before we try to peel back the layers around this perceived contradiction in Matthew, let’s look at our second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans for a couple of minutes, where he says; “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” And then again, “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Generally, that’s the same thing Jesus said over and over when he was discussing the Mosaic Law with the Pharisees and Scribes isn’t it? And if you’ve heard me preach before, you’ve often heard me quote St Thomas Aquinas’ definition of the pure “love” Jesus and Paul are talking about in the Bible. “Love is, willing the good of the other.” Friends – this must always be our start point as we read the Bible. Jesus made it really, really simple; love God and love your neighbor. And Aquinas helped clarify when he told us; “Love is, willing the good of the other.” Oh my, oh my! Such easy words to say but so very hard to put into practice.
OK, with this definition of love as our footing and start point, let’s go back to the Gospel reading. First of all, I followed the advice I give others when something I read in the Bible confuses me. I turn to expert scholarly commentary and here I found something about Matthew’s Gospel I didn’t realize before. Scholars tell us there are 5 great sermons or discourses by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and we just heard part of one today. They are; the “Sermon on the Mount” in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, the “Church’s missionary” sermon in Chapter 10. That’s where Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him by the way. Then we find the “sermon of parables” in Chapter 13. The “church order” sermon in Chapter 18, where today’s Gospel reading came from. And finally, we have the “great judgment” sermon in Chapter 25 with the sheep on the right and the goats on the left.
Now in my humble opinion, the title “church order” used by the scholars for Matthew 18 is misleading. Consequently, I would highly recommend you sit down and read all of Chapter 18 sometime soon to put today’s Gospel in a better context. It really has nothing to do with the structure of the Church at all. Jesus’ discourse in Chapter 18 is all about the care the disciples must have for one another in respect to guarding each other’s faith, to seeking out those who have wondered away from the fold, and to repeated forgiving those who have offended them. OK, you might ask; what about this part of Jesus’ sermon we heard today about going to someone who sinned and ultimately, if they don’t listen, treating them like a Gentile or a tax collector? Not only does that sound judgmental but it also sounds pretty final.
Well, here is an excellent example of why reading the whole of scripture is so important. First remember our anchor point about love. “Love is, willing the good of the other.” Next, listen to how Jesus starts this discourse in Matthew 18. We did not hear it in today’s Gospel, but this is important because it really puts the whole sermon in context. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Wow! My sisters and brothers, this simple sentence not only defines Jesus’ principal criticism of the religious hierarchy he was butting heads with 2000 years ago, but it provides us with clear direction for interpreting today’s Gospel reading.
Jesus is clear throughout the NT, final judgment always belongs to the Father but, based on today’s readings, we are not supposed to ignore a fellow Christian’s spiritually self-destructive behavior. Here are some guidelines to follow; don’t approach anyone with an “in your face” stance of moral superiority. That’s exactly what those Pharisees Jesus was always fighting with were doing. Never use the Bible or the Church as a weapon of moral aggression. Always approach your brother or sister with love. Remember, love is, willing the good of the other.
You know what’s really interesting about today’s culture? We so easily fall into the “I’m OK, you’re OK” mantra and don’t worry much about morality. It seems everyone believes they have their right to their own opinions about everything, don’t they? Whether it’s from a personal lifestyle, to what is a marriage, to when a human life begins, or when human life should end, it’s my right to decide isn’t it? And what’s really interesting is, people often point to Jesus’ own words in the Bible about judging others to defend their behavior, no matter how bizarre or self-destructive that behavior may be. Well guess what? Friends, the message emphasized in our Gospel reading today is this; if we remain indifferent to someone’s moral failures or self-destructive behavior, we are NOT demonstrating Christian love. We are not willing the good of the other. And if you think moral behavior is subjective, go read the Sermon on the Mount.
So, what are we supposed to do when we encounter immoral behavior? First read today’s Gospel. Then, in a context of love,,, talk. Talk one-on-one. We so often do exactly the opposite though, don’t we? The individual whose behavior is offensive is often the last person we talk to. It’s just so easy and sometimes actually fun, to talk to other people or even turn to social media when we find someone’s behavior objectionable. Our culture gives us examples of that every day, but the Gospel message is this; sit down eye-to-eye in an atmosphere of humble love and talk. Next, if that doesn’t work, is what the 12-step process calls intervention. Two or three of you who sincerely love and are honestly concerned about your brother’s or sister’s well-being,,, talk. And finally, don’t take the phrase “tell the Church” literally. Go to the community that cares because of love. And that may take many forms such as, professional mental health care or a support group.
OK, say all of that fails. What exactly does, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” mean? My friends, Jesus Christ himself sat down and broke bread with sinners all of the time. It drove those self-righteous Pharisees and Scribes nuts and they finally had him crucified. True, you never hear Jesus tell the prostitute just keep doing what you’re doing. His message is always one of repentance, but he never turns his back on the sinner.