THE readings in this Sunday’s liturgy -- Ezekiel 33:7-9, Romans 13:8-10, Matthew 18:15-20 -- all point to the Christian responsibility of seeking out the lost and bringing them back to the fold of the church.
In the First Reading, the Lord appoints Ezekiel as watchman for Israel. In that capacity he shall have the duty to warn the wicked of their sins. If after the warning, the wicked refuse to repent and then die, the prophet shall not be held responsible for his death, for he has performed his duty. On the other hand, if the prophet does not deliver the warning from the Lord, and then the wicked dies unrepentant, he shall be held responsible for the sinner’s death, for he has been remiss of his obligation.
In the Second Reading, the apostle Paul stresses that love is the fulfillment of the law. All the commandments are summed up in loving our neighbor as ourselves. Thus, even in correcting our erring brothers and sisters, love should be the motive -- not pride or self-righteousness. True love does no evil to fellowmen.
Finally, in the gospel, Jesus teaches us the progressive levels of fraternal correction. At the first level is the one-on-one correction between the corrector and the brother or sister in need of such correction -- a very personal and private thing that is not made known to anyone else.
If the offender refuses to listen to the correction, Jesus teaches us to proceed to the second level -- that of the corrector bringing along with him one or two others, “so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If the erring person still refuses to listen, Jesus instructs us to go to the third level -- to involve the church in winning over its lost member. And if still the sinner does not listen? Then Jesus empowers the church to treat that person “as it would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
What does it mean to treat anyone as we would a Gentile or a tax collector? It means the church authority to treat its unrepentant members, despite repeated and progressive levels of correction, as it would treat public sinners, that is, in disassociation and exclusion. This authority rests in Jesus’ own words, “Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
While this may appear to some as harsh, we may reflect to see if it were really so. We recall that the offender has been given several chances to straighten his life, yet he hardened his heart. In his free will, he chose evil over good, death over life. He refused God’s love, so he cannot escape God’s justice.
Secondly, his being cut off from the church is not by itself an act of hate but of love. It is an act of discipline that is meant to make him realize the value of the fellowship that he has treated cheaply and has just lost, so that in his suffering, he may come to his senses and tread the path to genuine repentance and reconciliation -- a bitter medicine to cure an ailment, so to speak.
But isn’t God a God of mercy? Sure he is. In his own time on earth, Jesus did not condemn sinners but offered them salvation and healing. Instead of distancing himself from Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards and sinners of all sorts, he dined with them, talked with them, touched them, and even offered his life for them. He did so not to tolerate their evil deeds but to lead them to repentance. Jesus is the good shepherd who will always seek the lost. God is the Father who will welcome with open arms his prodigal son who goes back home, and the Lord is the teacher who teaches us to forgive without limit.
But once forgiven, we have the responsibility to follow God. Genuine faith must show itself in love. To love God is to obey his commands, and to love Him is to love our neighbor. Whoever claims to be a believer but who habitually does not live in love, despite repeated corrections, is a liar and is not, after all, a genuine member of the body of Christ. In declaring him so, the church simply states a fact, and heaven affirms. Yet the door of mercy will always be there for the knocking, and will be opened by God to anyone who truly believes and decides to follow Jesus.
Editor’s Note: After resting for a month, Dr. Jaime Cortez is now reviving his column. Entitled Good News, the column is a reflection on the Sunday readings from a layman’s point of view. Dr. Cortez is now writing for SunStar Pampanga from the United States of America.