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Thursday, 3 September 2020

23rd Sunday Year A 2020

23rd. Sunday of Year (A)
(Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)

When the harmony of human life was shattered by sin, that mutual love which fostered harmony was forgotten as each individual became more independent of, less concerned with, his or her neighbour, brother or sister.  As a result, when God asked Cain:

             Where is Abel your brother?

Cain’s reply was:

             I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?    (Genesis 4:9)

… the very prototype of all ancient and modern ‘couldn’t care less’ and ‘look after number one first of all’ attitudes!

But in the Kingdom of God, in the new, redeemed and restored, human community inaugurated by the sacrifice, and configured to the teaching, of Our Blessed Lord Jesus -- such cold indifference has no legitimate place, as the Gospel reading for today clearly shows:

Jesus said to His disciples: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.  If he does not listen, take one or two other along with you ….. if he refuses to listen to them, tell the church, if he refuses even to listen to the Church, treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax-collector.

Now St. Matthew is the only evangelist to give us those words of Jesus: obviously important words as shown by their very closely and sequentially developed form; and some ancient writers recognizing their seriousness proclaimed them to be a serious commandment of the Lord for all;  and indeed, some even declared -- with relentless logic -- that anyone sinned-against who would not enter on that possible procedure of personal confrontation, witnesses, and ultimately church judgement,  was to be considered a greater sinner than the one guilty of the original fault!

Alas, even individuals who loved the Lord, when faced with the difficulty of understanding particularly ‘thorny’ passages of Scripture can be found to have, at times, unwittingly distorted Our Lord’s words with an interpretation of their own; as Father Faber laments in these famous words of his:  'The love of God is broader than the measure of our mind; we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.'

However, thanks to the work and achievement over many years of Catholic scholarship and Church guidance we are now in a better position to understand, more accurately and more lovingly, that which previously Mother Church – not fully understanding why St. Matthew alone reported those words Jesus -- had only been able to treasure in faithful trust, and hand-down literally and completely for later understanding.

Today, there is a conviction that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel memoirs of the Lord for a particular community in Jerusalem, now often referred to as Jewish Christians, that is, for former faithful pharisaic followers of the Mosaic Law -- in which, of course, Jesus Himself as a Child had been brought up most perfectly and much less rigidly at Nazareth – devout pharisaic followers of the Law who had  come to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, their Saviour and Redeemer, and had consequently left the synagogue to become members of the Christian Church in Jerusalem.

Now, their background was far different from that of the Gentiles, pagans for whom the letters of St. Paul and the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John were mainly addressed; and are we to think that Jesus had nothing to say to those of His own background who had left all for Him, and who now found themselves rejected and reviled by their former fellow-Jews, and perhaps not fully understood by their new-found fellow Christians?

Matthew earnestly desired to guide and sustain this his congregation of former Pharisees in the ways of their chosen Lord and Saviour, Jesus of Nazareth, and he most certainly did not think that Jesus had nothing particular to say for such converts. 

He, Matthew, had been appointed as ‘watchman’ for this congregation, and he was well aware that their lives till then -- lived in faithful observance of the Law of Moses and following traditional Jewish practices -- had brought them to recognize, love, and choose to obey Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.  Matthew too, had good reason to think that he, along with Paul, also ‘had the mind of Jesus’:

 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God.  And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.  For “who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ.   (1 Corinthians 12-16)

Now, Matthew had some most explicit words of Jesus to guide him in what he, imitating His Lord, was seeking to do for his congregation, words to be found in his Gospel, for he remembered Jesus once severely criticizing His opponents:

You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law; judgment and mercy and fidelity.  These you should have done without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23s.)

Tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, were part of their background as Pharisees, that is, as Israelites specially devoted to serve the God of their fathers by diligent observance of the Law, observance not limited to what was explicitly commanded but which also embraced practices that were thought to help better observance of what was prescribed.   And Jesus was saying that such extra devotional practices could still be acceptable if they truly helped them observe the weightier things of the Law better:

            These you should have done without neglecting the weightier things.

With such explicit words of Jesus-- the most supremely devout observer of the Law (Can any of you charge Me with sin?) and the very Son of the God of Israel -- Matthew would not rubbish the life-background and the deeply ingrained, devout endeavours of many of his community by trying to eradicate all traces of Pharisaic Judaism ‘hook, line, and sinker’ from them!  Instead he followed his and their Lord’s own example and words, these (procedural requirements) you learned to do before becoming a Christian you can continue to practice among yourselves -- they have become part of your life as devout servants of the Law – but they must not in any way cause you to neglect the essentials of your new life as Christians, walking in the way of Jesus according to the new law of grace, a law of far deeper love and fear of the Lord.  
How wonderful and instructive to be able to see Saint Matthew and Saint Paul both interpreting the ‘mind of Christ’ for those for whom the Spirit of Christ had established them both as watchmen! 

However, those words of Matthew are a good way of ‘having it out with a brother’, whereas the weightier things of Jesus’ Gospel Law, those not-to-be forgotten weightier things,  Matthew reserved until a little later (18:21-22) when he reported how Jesus responded to a question from Peter:

“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how many times must I forgive Him? As many as seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times!”

Isn’t it, indeed, lovely to glimpse St. Matthew using his knowledge of Jesus, his own awareness of the ‘mind of Jesus’, to help these Pharisee converts develop in the way of Jesus!  You must remember that Matthew was formerly a renegade Jew, a tax-collector for the Romans -- named Levi -- despised by all Jews, most especially however by the Pharisees!!  All that however is now ‘water under the bridge’ as Matthew digs out of his personal memories of Jesus to find a way to help and encourage these new converts in the way of Christian faith and, by his own example, unconsciously to show them that ‘weightiest’ and most beautiful, ‘item’, jewel,  of the Christian Law: charity ... the love and concern of a convert ex-Jewish tax-collector for the well-being and confirmation of convert ex-Pharisees in their shared new Faith!!

We should now dwell, just for a moment, on another point.   Jesus wants us to be concerned about, to love, both our fellows and the truth: He wants us to be concerned, in the right way, to ‘win back our brother’.

We are not to judge hastily; we are not to condemn; as our Blessed Lord commanded explicitly:

            Stop judging, that you may not be judged (Matthew 7:1);

and as His most faithful Apostle Paul re-iterated to the Romans (14:10):

Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Nor are we to make accusations freely and inconsiderately before other people, for the name given to Satan in the early Church was ‘The Accuser’ as we read in the book of Revelation (12:10):

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night.

It may, a times, be necessary to speak,  not secretly to ourselves – cherishing grudges or contempt – not openly to other people – slandering our neighbour, ruining his public reputation unnecessarily – but charitably to the offender himself: not in order to accuse him, but only if such action might serve to help win him back to the right way:

We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all (1 Thess. 5:14); for:

Better is an open rebuke than a love that remains hidden (Proverbs 27:5).

In all cases, we should recommend the whole affair, the offender, ourselves and the offended, to the Lord Who lived among us and, in the Spirit, knows us all most intimately: our actions and our intentions, our fears and sensitivities.

As St. Paul says (Romans 12:17-18):

Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.

And here I would add myself: having committed everything to the Lord, live at peace yes; and above all at peace with, and in, yourself, your own heart and mind -- a skill, an art, not always easy, but one which can be learned by those who are willing to humble themselves and practice seriously that other great Christian virtue of patience.

Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.  (Romans 12:21)