The commercial below presents one of life’s little tests: the “middle seat.” There’s a lot of stress involved in flying, and on top of that we’re in like cattle. Finally, there is that dreaded middle seat. We’re not happy if we’re consigned to one and often feel apologetic about it to our seatmates, even though we paid for the seat just as they did. If we’re seated in either the window or aisle seats we hope that the person in the middle isn’t too unusual or, dare I say, too large. Yes, we all hate that middle seat and only hope to minimize the discomfort.
This commercial depicts the unfortunate truth that we often judge the physical appearance of others above other things. It is the first thing we see (or experience) of another, but one would wish we were less shallow.
Perhaps airplanes are the last place we will overcome this tendency, for our meetings there are just by chance. Pray for the ability to avoid hasty judgments based on mere appearance, particularly in the more stable settings in your life. Mere appearance leaves too much undisclosed.
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. PRESCRIPTION – Jesus 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. PURPOSE – If 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. POWER – Again, 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.
We live in difficult times for the Church; from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic on this blog to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.
The Gospel this Sunday, however, featuring the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.
This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts call for it as well. But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.
We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.
Let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.
I. WAKE UP.Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”
Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.
Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly share plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children are doing: what they watch, what they listen to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.
Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, debating about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.
We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. We who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.
It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.
Blaming one side of the Church or the other, faulting this kind of liturgy or that, is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.
It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.
Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.
II. WISE UP.When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”
Part of the sobriety we have to regain is the understanding that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates us. He hates our children. He hates the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.
We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we do need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. Once we can recognize him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.
Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics, but it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly ways. The Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not typically mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle against pride, love to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.
To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. The Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some reformers propose to be. It is fine to be appropriately zealous for reform and to want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).
Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.
III. WAIT UP. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest …”
We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, ne’er-do-well, and bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for a severe clampdown by bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.
There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does, too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet these texts need to be balanced by texts such as today’s Gospel. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity but it must be conducted with patience and love.
The Lord is patient. In today’s Gospel, He directs us to be prepared to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).
So while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions. Leave it be; wait. Place this in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.
We have had many discussions here on the blog about whether and how bishops should discipline Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible voting patterns, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through their support of abortion and euthanasia.
While I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined, it remains a judgment for the bishop to make as to who, how, and when.
There are Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord Himself speaks to different situations in different ways.
In today’s Gospel the Lord says that we should wait. Generally, this is good advice to follow. After all, how do we know that we don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2; Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming? (Mal 3:2)
Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.
IV. WASH UP.Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”
So you see there is a harvest. Those who have sinned or led others to sin, and have not repented, are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.
The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me; everyone will have to render an account.”
That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.
Step four in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wash up,” to get ready.
So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”
Here is a great exposition on this Gospel by Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!