Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A | Please click here for the readings.
Over the last couple of weeks now, we have been reading from the Gospel of Matthew, hearing about the interactions between Jesus and his apostles as they traveled throughout the region of Caesarea Philippi.
Two weeks ago, as Jesus and his apostles began this trip through that region, we witnessed a great confession of faith by Peter. You might recall that Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. In a Spirit-inspired moment, Peter recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As a result, Jesus tells Peter that he will be the rock on which the Church is built and then He gave Peter the authority to loose and bind.
Last week, we see quite the opposite happening with Peter. It’s almost as if he let Jesus’ comment about him being the rock of the Church go to his head. As we witnessed, Peter fell into the trap of thinking as human beings, rather than thinking with the will of God as he tries to tell Jesus that he would never be put to death on a cross. And in that moment, Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him Satan.
This week, that journey around Caesarea Philippi is beginning to come to a close as Jesus and his disciples begin the journey home to Jerusalem, a journey which we know will end in the Passion of Jesus. But along the way, the conversation between them continues to deepen. Jesus is beginning to tell the disciples what it truly means to be a member of the Christian community and all that entails for their lives. All the things that Jesus will tell his disciples from this point forward will show how embracing the Christian way of life must involve deep personal conversion, a total change of heart and mind. In a particular way, it’s about an invitation to turn away from sin, from former ways of living, and to embrace a radical surrender and trust in God. Over the remaining chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will show his disciples exactly how that looks.
The invitation that Jesus gives his disciples in this passage from Matthew is how they will be called to lead others in the community of believers to a deeper sense of faith, to a deeper encounter and relationship with God. It is in this interaction that Jesus extends the authority to loose and bind – meaning to forgive or retain sins – to all of his apostles, not just Peter. Jesus is telling them that it is going to be their responsibility to lead the future community of Christians in the ways of discipleship.
All of us as Christians are called to be watchmen, custodians, and guardians of the Church. We are called to protect the Church from negative outside influences and erroneous ways of thinking. We are called to uphold the unity of the Church and to safeguard the faith that has been entrusted to us as followers of Jesus and heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven. And part of that responsibility is calling out sin and challenging one another when we aren’t living the fullness of the Christian faith. It is our duty to encourage each other to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus, challenging each other to be the best disciples of Jesus that we can be. But this can only be done if we ourselves are taking our faith seriously and truly making the effort to live holy lives.
As Christians, it is crucial for us to care for one another – but not just care about the general needs of the other; instead, to genuinely love each other, which means caring for the health and state of each other’s souls. So when we recognize that someone within our community is not living as they should be, it is our duty to call them out for that. But we can only challenge and fraternally correct from a place of love.
A few years ago, Pope Francis spoke on this topic of fraternal correction and he made a comparison that only Pope Francis can make. He was speaking about how correction can only be effective if it is done out of love and charity. He said: “You cannot reprimand a person without love and charity – (just like) you cannot perform surgery without anesthesia: you cannot, because the patient will die from the pain.” Charity “is like an anesthetic that helps you to receive treatment and accept reprimand. Take him to one side and talk to him, with gentleness, with love.”
I’m sure, at some point in our lives, all of us have been challenged by someone else because of something stupid that we did. That challenge may have come from a parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher, a counselor, or a priest. Now think about the times when a challenge was not necessarily given from a place of love. Did it result in a change behavior or the opposite? More than likely, you kept doing what you were called out for. Now think about the times a correction was given from a place of love. Did it lead to a change of heart on your part? Probably. That’s the kind of correction we are called to give.
It can be a delicate thing to remind someone that what they are doing is wrong. For those of us who have been in ministry long enough, we have experienced times when our encouragement is accepted and a change is effected and then we have experienced times when people have told us to simply “get lost.” Yet, we are still called to encourage and point out a wrongdoing.1 We are all called to do what Jesus has instructed us to do. Why? Because the consequences for us and the other person are a matter of life and death…of eternal life and eternal death. Ezekiel tells us: “If you do not speak to the wicked person about their wickedness, I will hold you responsible for the consequences of his or her wrongdoing.”
A priest friend of mine said this a few weeks back when he was speaking to his parishioners about a similar topic, but it’s a sentiment that I echo. As your priest, I love each of the members of this community – as a spiritual father, as a brother in Christ. But with all due respect, I’m not going to hell for any one of you.2 You have my promise, I will always speak the truth, I will always challenge you to be better. And I hope you would do the same for me.
So today, as a community of believers, on the same journey as one another, may we pray that God give each of us the courage to challenge one another (out of love) to be better, to speak Gospel truth to one another, and to remind each other about the consequences of our sinful ways. Because the failure of living out this responsibility is literally a matter of heaven and hell. That’s what’s at stake here. What choice do you make? Are you willing to embrace this aspect of Christian discipleship? Or will you sit on the sidelines? The choice is yours.
1 Paraphrase from Fr. Joe Robinson, “23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time” in Guiding Light: The Soul Who Could, Shepherds of Christ Ministries (Madison: 2016)