THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 04, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Romans 13:8-10

Matthew 18:15-20

There are two ways of hearing the proclamation of the Word – as an individual and as a member of a community.  The Word challenges and confronts the individual heart.  It challenges and confronts the body that is the church.  The prophet Ezekiel this Sunday speaks out because God commands it.  There are dire consequences if he does not.  The call is always to conversion, be it to the House of Israel or to the wicked one as we hear in today’s first reading.  Israel in exile during the Babylonian captivity needs to be renewed in fidelity to God’s law and must be weaned from pagan practices that weakened them and resulted in Israel’s downfall and Jerusalem’s destruction.  The conversion happens one person at a time.  God holds the prophet responsible for the proclamation and the hearer for responding to the challenge and returning to God’s ways or not.

Conversion is a lifelong process both for the individual and for the church.  When the faithful gather at the Table of the Word it is to listen, to be challenged, and to be transformed by the proclamation.  What effect does the Spirit prompt in my heart as I hear the Word?  What effect does the Spirit prompt in this community of which I am a part?  I am so used to standing behind defenses, masked and clad in armor that deflects the message and shields my heart lest the Word penetrate.

I gather regularly with this community of individuals all coming as we do from the same neighborhood and class of society with our accepted ways of acting.  We have causes that we support in common.  We can be insular in the comfort of our pew.  I was unnerved last Sunday when someone with whom I was unfamiliar was in my place.  Granted I was a few minutes later than when I usually arrive.  It took me until after the preparation of the gifts to relax, take a couple of deep breaths, swallow three times and let go of my resentment.  I’m not alone in liking the older hymns that the choir sings.  Usually the readings are well read and the sermons are comforting.  I shared these observations with a pew mate and her retort was to ask me if I thought that was what was supposed to happen during the Liturgy of the Word.  She said she had heard the experience might be more confrontational.

The readings this week gave me pause.  It’s one thing to think of other people who could benefit from the lesson.  What unsettled me was the question that pierced through a chink in my armor and entered my consciousness:  Could Ezekiel be speaking to me?  And if the prophet were speaking to me, what response would be expected?  A fortiori, could the prophet be speaking to this parish community?  If that were true, how should the community respond?  To what would I and we have to die in order to rise to the life that Jesus would have us live?

At first there was something in what I heard that appealed to the judgmental in me.  These readings would seem to call for that ability.  I would have to know who the wicked are before I could warn them for the Lord.  Knowing their wickedness and confronting it, as difficult as that might be, would be better than my silence warranting my being responsible for their receiving God’s wrath.

I liked the gospel’s approach even better.  If I recognized that someone sinned against me, at least the process of confrontation could begin between just the two of us.  That’s what Jesus said.  If the conversation did not bring about reform, then I could garner support for my cause from a few of my friends.  And if that didn’t work, I would have to put the matter before the whole parish.  There would be some consolation if the offender failed to listen to the whole parish because then the sinner could be shunned.  There would be satisfaction in that, in knowing that I was right and the other was wrong.  Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus said.

No sooner was I satisfied with my interpretation of the message than I began to feel uneasy.  Was that the Spirit moving in me?  To shun means to avoid deliberately and habitually.  That’s what the community did to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.  There are, after all, some faith communities that endorse shunning.  Something gnaws at me.  Why do I think that the Church ought not do that?  It is one thing for an individual to decide that s/he wants to leave the community, but excommunication is quite another matter.  To be honest, I winced at the stories about certain political figures during the last campaign for election being denied Eucharist for stands they took on certain issues, for example, freedom of choice regarding abortion.  But other politicians whose stands seemed to be in opposition to the Church’s social gospel and our consequent responsibility to care for the poor suffered no such denial.  That struck me as odd.  Besides, I am convinced that it is not the minister’s right to make that determination.  That decision is the prerogative of the one presenting self in the Communion Procession.

Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.  Then I thought about the example set by Jesus’ own table fellowship practice.  One of the accusations made against him in the case for his crucifixion was: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Among those sinners were tax collectors.  The judgers knew that he shared his table with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other people of ill repute.  He was known even to converse with lepers and Gentiles.  How can I reconcile Jesus’ attitude with shunning?  I was tempted to think that Jesus statement about Gentiles and tax collectors warranted my shunning of one deemed by me or the community with me to be a sinner.  Then I remembered that Jesus’ own first attitude toward Gentiles had to change.  His mission and message once thought to be only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel expanded to include Gentiles when the Canaanite woman reminded him that even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.  And Matthew was a tax collector.

So, what impact ought these readings have on me?  How should my attitude and behavior be affected?  Certainly the desired response is not to be blind or indifferent to evils being perpetrated.  The Church’s social Gospel, the universal call for justice and peace, attests to that.  So does the Church’s proclamation supporting primacy of place for the poor, a fundamental option for the poor, attest.  In the face of social evils it is not enough for me to shrug my shoulders, convinced, as I am that I would never do such things, and conclude that such evils will always go on.  Do I really agree with some of those televangelists who say if the poor would just work harder they wouldn’t be poor any longer, absolving the wealthy of responsibility for them.  Or, their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor with them and is a punishment for their sins – theirs or their parents’.

This is where my on-going conversion comes into play.  The judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel ought to root out any indifference in me, that is, unless I won’t mind being banished with the goats that failed to recognize Jesus and respond to his needs evidenced in the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the naked.  Ah, but that is for a discussion of another Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.

My call is to live the Gospel that for Paul is summed up in this injunction: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.  The commandments tell me all the things I should not do to my brothers and sisters.  Such deeds ought not be part of my life.  But not doing is not enough.  What I must do is love.  And that means loving in imitation of the way Jesus loved.  That means forgiving, too.  I must love even those I deem unlovable.  It will be amazing what I will find out in the process.

What I recognize as my call as an individual translates into a call for the community with which I gather.  After all, we will move together from the Table of the Word where we received the call to conversion to the Table of the Eucharist where the Spirit will accomplish the transformation of the Bread and Wine and of us.  Love demands the proclamation: All are welcome here.  Those who approach to celebrate Eucharist and to receive worthily must accept forgiveness in their own lives in order that having eaten and drunk they may be sent to proclaim that forgiveness and hope to all they meet.

Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.  That’s what Paul said.  That’s what we must believe and put into practice.

Sincerely,

Didymus    

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