Homily for September 4, XXIII Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A
“Love is the fulfillment of the law.” In today’s reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul echos the words of the Lord who said that all the law and prophets could be summarized in the commandments to love God and each other.
That is not as easy as it sounds, because what the Bible means by love is often misinterpreted, and reduced to acceptance and affirmation. Those are part of love, but not every kind of behavior should be accepted and affirmed. If what someone does is damaging to themselves or others, or is offensive to God, true love requires us to try to help that person change their behavior for their own good and the good of the community. Even if that fails, we are bound by charity and justice to seek to minimize the physical and spiritual damage that might result from what that person has done.
This duty is traditionally called “fraternal correction”, and it is described in both the first reading and the Gospel. It is primarily the responsibility of people in positions of moral authority. In the first reading, God is explicitly giving this task to the prophet Ezekiel. He was sent by God to proclaim the truth and to guide the people of Israel, so if he did not try to protect them by instructing them to avoid sin, he would be held accountable for those who fell away. Similarly, in the Gospel, Jesus is speaking particularly to his closest disciples, those who would become the first apostles and missionaries.
Every one of us sins, and we all need to be helped sometimes to stay on the right path. It can be easy for us to stray a little bit through weakness, negligence, ignorance or confusion. This is why it is the duty of bishops and priests to preach about sin from time to time, and occasionally to address individuals in private or, in some rare cases, in public, to invite them to greater fidelity to living the faith. It does not mean that we are judging people’s good intentions, or think we are better than everyone else, but just that we want to help people get to heaven. And of course, we ourselves are less than perfect. I think most of us would rather just preach about God’s love and forgiveness, but we would be shirking our duties. We are called to be like lifeguards on the beach of life, trying to warn people away from hidden rocks and tricky waters where riptides could pull people under. When necessary, we plunge into the water with the faith and the sacraments as our rescue devices, and try to bring people back into safer water.
Many of you are parents, and also have this duty with respect to your children, and to some extent we all have this responsibility towards each other. As you know from experience, it is something of an art to know what to say and when to say it. Our well-intentioned advice isn’t always as effective as we’d like it to be, and sometimes it can be taken completely the wrong way. Still, we have to try. To that end, we ask God to grant us His wisdom, we seek counsel from other people, and pray for those who we believe have gone astray.
The most important thing is to remember always that our first duty is to love. We should never judge people harshly, or gossip about them, or bring their mistakes to other people’s attention unless it is truly constructive and respectful of the person’s dignity. We should not take it upon ourselves to speak with someone to correct them if we are not in control of our emotions. It is all too easy to equate what bothers us or hurts our feelings, with what is objectively wrong, when that is often not the case. Something that rubs us the wrong way may be perfectly OK, or a very minor offense. Sometimes it’s better to let something go unmentioned if we risk sinning against charity in our way of pointing it out. We should always be motivated by love, seeking to help everyone on the road to salvation, not looking to get back at people.
If we feel it is our duty to correct someone, we should do it with respect and charity, explaining to them the objective reason for correcting them, and granting them the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions. We should also be grateful to those who help us to discover our own faults. By doing so, they may have helped us along on the road to heaven.