There is a common thread of real, and very serious, responsibility for neighbor running across all three of this week’s readings.
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
It’s not that common for the second reading to dovetail this nicely with the first reading and the Gospel reading. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but perhaps it bears repeating (even in somewhat oversimplified form). . .
The lectionary cycle for Sunday readings consists of two independent threads of content: the primary thread being a sequential reading of one of the Gospels, and the secondary thread being a sequential reading of one of the New Testament letters – this second thread being what is proclaimed in the second reading. The first reading is not independent, but is chosen specifically to provide Biblical context (from the Old Testament, as a rule) for the Gospel reading. So the first reading and Gospel reading always dovetail, while the second reading is usually pretty tangential to the others. A tangent, however, always has some point of contact, and sometimes, like today, it seems to complete the circle remarkably.
As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reconcile modernity’s obsessive individualism with the worldview of the Bible. The Ezekiel reading is quite straightforward in assigning the prophet responsibility – not for the fate of his people, but for their knowledge of God’s Word. The watchman will have on his hands the blood of those whom he fails to warn of their danger. This could not have been a particularly comforting message to Ezekiel. Yes, they are responsible for themselves, but so is Ezekiel. It’s hard not to think of Jonah here, and his attempt to flee rather than proclaim God’s Word – which the Lord would have none of. It also recalls, at least obliquely, that marvelous cry of Jeremiah’s pathos from last Sunday’s first reading:
I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9, NAB)
Looking strictly at the Gospel passage as it stands, it may not be immediately evident how the Ezekiel reading provides Old Testament context for understanding it – the Gospel message almost seems to be about church discipline, and the “proper” means of correcting the wayward. Yet the simple fact that the liturgy directs us to view the passage through the lens of the demands placed on Ezekiel calls for a closer look.
Seen within the context of the entirety of Matthew 18, it becomes a bit clearer how the Gospel passage relates to the Watchman passage. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, which Jesus answers by holding a humble child. But then Jesus warns of the terrors awaiting any who would cause such a child to sin, and then reasserts, in the parable of the lost sheep, how the Father desires not one of the little ones to be lost. This is the preceding context for our passage, and it could not be clearer that the Lord is reiterating the idea from our Ezekiel passage that the blood of sinners can be – and will be – judged to be on the hands of others.
Then our own passage speaks of how to deal with a brother who sins. Seen in the light of the preceding verses’ focus on the responsibility of some for the spiritual well-being of others – as well as on God’s salvific desire for all – the “process” of correcting the brother begins to look like an actual burden upon the Church, for the sake of reconciling the sinner. Where this differs from the instructions to Ezekiel is in the fact that Christ, as is typical, expands upon the requirements laid out in the Old Testament. No longer is it sufficient for the “watchman” to witness God’s Word to the sinner; he must now be persistent, imploring the help of others in the congregation – even the entire Church.
Implicit in this “correction” is the readiness to forgive – to be reconciled. For what else could it mean to “win over your brother” except to bring him to repentance, and how else could he be brought to repentance by “listening to you” except through an offer of forgiveness? A cynic might counter that he could possibly be shamed, exposed, or verbally beaten into repentance, but how would bringing along “one or two others,” after the fact, make them witnesses of some wrong done in the past? They could only serve as witnesses to your offer of reconciliation, and the repentance – or lack thereof – of the guilty party. The Lord is stressing here the power of Christian community to make Christ present to the world, especially Christ’s forgiveness.
That this is indeed what the Lord is pointing to is, I believe, made clear in next set of verses (closing out chapter 18), which show Peter asking how many times he must forgive his brother, and the Lord responding with the parable of the unforgiving servant – someone blessed with the gift of forgiveness who was severely punished when he did not use his opportunity to extend that gift to another in need of it.
So, having seen how the Gospel passage does, in fact, recapitulate the message of the Ezekiel reading – and even magnify it – we turn finally to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“Love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul tells us, because “love does no evil to the neighbor.” But as we have seen, for those who possess God’s Word (and His forgiveness) the law calls for us to share such gifts with those in need of them, and so doing “evil to the neighbor” must be seen not only as committing sins against them, but sinning against them by omission: failing to warn them of danger, and failing to offer them the freedom of forgiveness. Loving others – even as ourselves – requires putting in the effort to make God present to them in humility, even in the face of the ever-present temptation to pull a Jonah.