September 6, 2014

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH


((Click here for today’s readings.)

I have always thought I would like to be on a jury. There is something fascinating about trying to find the truth amid the conflicting claims. I was called to a jury pool only once, but it was a Friday, and by 1:00 p.m. everyone was sent home.

The scenario in today’s Gospel at first seems the same. But in this case I would not be at all interested. What is the difference? A jury is anonymous, unacquainted with the persons involved, and can ideally be objective. In a local Christian community, however, people know each other, have personal opinions on the issues, etc.

I am told (but have been unable to verify) that there was a time in French Canada that Catholic families would take their disputes to the pastor for him to adjudicate. Often enough the result was disastrous, not resolving the issue but only creating hostility toward the Church.

Theoretically it makes sense, of course. At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus gives the power of “loosing and binding” not only to Simon Peter (as in two chapters earlier), but this time using the plural “you,” addressing at least the other Apostles and very probably all his disciples. It isn’t quite as dramatic as the responsibility given to Ezekiel in the first reading, where God warns him that it will be his fault if he fails to challenge a sinner and the sinner dies in his sin. But it isn’t to be taken lightly either.

Ideally situations of conflict ought not to arise among Christians. St. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” the context just before it reads: “Pay to all their due, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” In other words, don’t go looking for trouble.

Jesus apparently understands that people who rub elbows sometimes step on each other’s toes. And although in the Sermon on the Mount he had said, “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well,” here he is being perhaps more realistic.

St. Paul complains in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth that when they have a conflict, they take each other to civil court instead of to members of the Christian community. It is clear that the situation described in the Acts of the Apostles, where “all the believers were of one mind and one heart,” didn’t last very long. At a certain point, the honeymoon was over.

St. Paul’s “solution” is before the fact. “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That might sound like he is saying we should always do the “loving thing.” Maybe the loving thing would be not to pursue one’s rights at all.

Well, yes and no. “Things” are not loving or unloving in themselves. The same act can be loving or unloving. It isn’t the act that is loving, but the person. Circumstances differ. Personalities differ. The “thing” that may work for one may not work for another, or at one time and not another. Anyone who has raised children knows this. Sometimes—rarely, I hope—one really must be cruel to be kind.

We mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “nice thing;” that can be dishonest, or even truly unkind. On the other hand, we mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “right thing” in an absolutist way; sometimes you can be so right you’re wrong.

St. Augustine points out that a parent will punish a child, whereas a would-be kidnapper will lure the child gently. The first is loving, the second is anything but. Not every nice gesture proceeds from a loving heart, not every harsh word bespeaks hatred.

To sue or not to sue? To punish or spare? To protest or accept? The answer is: whichever really carries out the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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