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The Obligation of Clear, Compassionate Correction of the Sinner – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

September 9, 2017 4 Comments

We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to try to shame us into silence. Despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and explanation of our obligation, as well instruction on how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTIONJesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because although some ancient manuscripts contain this phrase, many do not. While some interpret this Gospel to command correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review today contain this restriction. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Notice the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many, probably due to sloth, prefer to say that it’s none of their business what others do. Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In this teaching, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation; some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific instances. For example, one generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so, superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. The general rule, however, remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.”

There are many other Scriptures that also advise and even obligate us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19).
  • Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col 3:16)
  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Hence, in charity, we have an obligation to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting as if we are “superior.” Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment, but for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSEIf he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and to win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:

1.  Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If a person is in sin, too frequently we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner about it. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin: the sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting many sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, first. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner, and sometimes we may need to check a few facts first, but such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

2.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This sort of option may seem difficult today in our cosmopolitan settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who resist treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as demonstrating severe anger, refusing to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members whom the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

3.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. This presupposes that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (e.g., pastors, parish leaders). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step as unrealistic, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be.

For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues, and disrespect for parents.

To be honest, though, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, the word “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, such as leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older parishioners (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

4.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Here we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”

Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus Himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. Excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. In addition, excommunication comes only at the end of a long process; it is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it is taught here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  • We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
  • If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).
  • It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:1).
  • Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:33).
  • But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11)

So there is a fairly strong, clear biblical mandate from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

If any would doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that He will recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

Today there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process such as Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion—either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting a woman to have one—he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion (or same-sex “marriage,” for that matter). Most of them say that they are concerned that it would be perceived as a political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls, and because the action would likely be misinterpreted and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate; bishops must make prudential judgments. At a bare minimum, I would hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability to others has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in the case of prominent individuals) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise, those of any prominence who help to advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors/bishops to return to the truth.

It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWERAgain, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. How can we have unity in the Church if there isn’t agreement on basic moral principles and behavior? Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and His Church. Fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.

Sadly, today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many continue for too long without being corrected by the Church. We are not a force for change because we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.

Much work and prayer are necessary today to unlock the power of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel.

Comments (4)

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  1. Nick says:

    Fraternal correction has its root in Jewish capital punishment. In order for a Jew to suffer punishment for capital sin, he or she must (among other things) be warned against sinning first, because God desires not death but contrition. This is what the watchman verses are about.

    Rashi comments on Ezekiel 3:17: “Why are you silent? Is it not as a lookout, one who is appointed over the towers, to see to it that if armies come to the city, the shofar shall be sounded to warn the people to gather and strengthen themselvesthat I have appointed you; to warn them to beware of retribution, so that I need not bring it upon them.”

  2. Antonia says:

    Thank you for this essay, Msgr. Pope, especially because this is such a tricky and sometimes explosive topic. Your commentaries have been very helpful in filling out my understanding of the faith since my conversion from atheism… and I pass your articles & wisdom along to my kids, extended family & friends.

  3. LM says:

    I humbly would like to know, Monsignor, if these instructions apply to the pastor, e.g., providing instruction on the gravity of using artificial birth control (outside of non-pregnancy issues) or divorce. If Jesus asks us as individuals to help save souls by talking to people in our circle, then could it apply that a pastor has a responsibility to save souls by addressing these two (and other) grave areas during his homilies (as well as privately in confession)?

  4. Alfredo says:

    Our Archbishop had an interesting take on this reading this Sunday, a take I had never heard before.

    He reminded us that, as the writer of this passage, Matthew had actually experienced Jesus’s treatment of gentiles and tax collectors. Thus, when Jesus says that rebellious brethren must be treated like one would a tax collector, He’s asking us to treat them with mercy, and lead them back to communion!

    Much to think about there…

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