Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
When the apostles were checking the box “What would you like to be when you grow up?, ” there is an eighty to ninety percent chance they all checked “fisherman.” [Matthew may have liked his job as tax collector, even if all the Jews hated him!] Since “computer specialist” wasn’t available, it is very likely they chose what they knew – catching fish. When the apostles met Jesus they were no doubt surprised that he was a carpenter. We can be fairly certain that the last thing they wanted to be, something that would have been familiar to them as good Jews – they did not want to be a prophet. If the fishless nights and the storms at sea were not enough to get one to change one’s vocation, the fear of suffering the abuse a prophet suffered was enough to convince them that they made the right choice.
The first reading for this Sunday from the prophet Ezekiel highlights the challenge of what a prophet’s life is like. Ezekiel is appointed “watchman” for the whole nation! The whole nation! Most of us feel overwhelmed being responsible for our spouse, or our family. Ezekiel is called to be responsible for the entire “house of Israel,” and he is called to deliver God’s word to them, a word that is meant to dissuade them from their evil ways, a word that is regularly going to make the people unhappy. Ezekiel is one of many prophets who understand that delivering God’s word is not going to make you the most popular person on the block, just ask the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, about how this worked out for him. But speak he must, for if he doesn’t speak, it is Ezekiel who will be held accountable.
At first glance it would appear that Ezekiel is trapped in a hopelessly unfair situation, but when we view that situation in the light of the New Testament, we understand that he is being called to do what every unselfish person is called to do, to be concerned about the welfare of one’s neighbor. The “fraternal correction” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew echoes the solicitude encouraged for one’s neighbor by Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel and all the prophets. It is an unavoidable solicitude for those who call themselves Christian, and it is born of the great commandment to love God, and love our neighbor.
In the gospel reading for today Jesus outlines the cumbersome process that a person should use towards a person that might have offended us. First, speak to the person, not with loud recriminations, or announcements from the pulpit, keeping it “between the two of you.” Second, if the person refuses to listen, get another person or two to accompany you, there’s strength in numbers. Third, if the person still does not listen, refer it to the “church,” an even larger group of faith-filled individuals who might impress upon the person the seriousness of your concerns. Last, if the person does not listen to the church, then treat him “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Did that mean you gave up on them as a lost cause? Not if the way Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles serves as an example. Jesus never stopped reaching out to Gentiles or tax collectors, and neither should we stop reaching out to those who have wronged us.
The readings for this Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time remind us that the prophetic role we have as Christians is founded on our love for one another. It is a role that demands that we speak boldly, and yet gently, the Word of God to those who might have gone astray. Sr. Mary McGlone, speaking specifically about our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, writes: “The prophetic vocation is one way of understanding what Paul was calling the Romans to do. Prophets are called to make profound love of God and neighbor the underpinning of their everyday activities. Prophets have to love God in a way that leads them to listen so deeply that they share God’s heart. Prophets must also love others enough to risk their own comfort and even their well-being on behalf of all of them. They show their love for the oppressed by speaking out for them; they act on their love for the oppressors by calling them to conversion.”
Far too often, our correction of others is harsh and unfeeling. We are quick to point out the faults of others, and often times it is done less to win them over, and more to embarrass and chide. As Pope Francis warns us, when correcting others our “approach is one of sensitivity, prudence, humility, attention towards the one who committed a fault, to avoid wounding or killing the brother with words. Because, you know, words too can kill!” Indeed, they can, and have.
For us who share in the prophetic role of Christ, our Savior, neighborly correction is always a possibility, for we are called to proclaim God’s word in good times and in bad, even when it might be inconvenient or untimely. It is never done with a sense of superiority that causes us to be self-righteous, it is never done without regard for the offending person. The advice of spiritual writer Scott Hahn is welcome to have the last word: “We should never correct out of anger, or a desire to punish. Instead our message must be that of today’s Psalm—urging the sinner to hear God’s voice, not to harden their hearts, and to remember that He is the one who made us, and the rock of our salvation.”