There are times when a person joins an organisation, the person is given a ‘code of conduct’ which outlines the social norms and rules and responsibilities of, or proper practices for, an individual, party or organization. Sometimes these are codified and there are also at times by convention established by oral tradition.
Our gospel passage today is taken from Matthew 18 and this chapter is somewhat like a ‘code of conduct’. It speaks about ‘qualities and attitudes’ of a disciple of Jesus. Before we explore further our gospel passage, one needs to bear in mind the context in which this ‘code’ developed. When Jesus began his public ministry, he called his disciples and formed them into a community. That is why the disciples, who later were called apostles, were bound together as a community and that their faith was to grow within the context of a community. After Jesus departs, the community then will be a sign that bears witness to Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, namely in chapter 2, we hear how the early Church lived as a community and that the community grew together and witnessed to the message of Jesus Christ.
With this background in mind, we look at the first part of our gospel today which is about fraternal correction. Since Jesus intended that the disciples bore witness as a community, it was crucial that their unity bore witness to Jesus and that every member was an integral part and had a responsibility in that process of witnessing. Therefore, when someone in the community does wrong, it was essential that another member of that community corrected the person doing wrong because it reflected badly on what the others were preaching and doing. There was a kind of a community support system that helped one another to become better disciples of Jesus.
Fast forward two thousand years later, most of us today do not live within a community, even though we may belong to a community we call Church. We may attend the same Church every Sunday but we are far from being a community because the life of the early Christian Community, which is often quoted in Christian literature as the ideal community, is far from what we live today. In this light then, how do we read and understand our gospel passage today?
Today, we live in a highly competitive world and we say that it is a world where only the fittest will survive. Unfortunately, because of the competitive nature of man and woman, part of the ‘survival ritual’ is to outdo one another and we know for a fact that many people don’t take correction too well, especially when the correction was done in bad faith.
The gospel today is neither about criticising each other or amplifying the faults or weaknesses of others – it is not to be read as an endorsement from Jesus to go around correcting people. Rather, when we place the gospel in context, it is about winning people over with the power of God’s love. St Paul in the letter to the Romans that we have as our second reading today provides us with a good starting point: “love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour”. The life of a disciple is founded on love – it is love that must be foundation and motivation of all our actions. In fact, in correcting another, it should never be about who is right and who is wrong – it is about winning people with the love of Christ.
It is interesting to note that what follows immediately after this passage is Simon Peter asking Jesus ‘how many times must I forgive my brother?’, which will be our gospel text next Sunday. It would seem that the way Matthew has arranged his gospel, it is apparent that the responsibility of fraternal correction must go together with the ability to forgive the wrong on another – one cannot go without the other… if you can’t forgive, don’t correct. If I may go further, if you can’t correct with charity in your heart, don’t gossip either – this often seems to be the favourite pass time of many people and the greatest obstacle to unity in the community.
From the time of his election, Pope Francis has on countless occasions spoken about the evils of gossip. In his most recent visit to Poland, the Holy Father equates the act of gossiping with the acts of terrorism when he said, “gossip is terrorism, it’s the terrorism of words, insulting one’s heart and dignity.” The ‘code of conduct’ given by Jesus was intended to preserve the unity of community of believers and all of us must strive to work for that unity, with love as its foundation. Let us not do anything that will injure our community, the Church; we must work for unity amongst ourselves – that which Jesus prayed just before embracing the cross, “Father, may they be one, just as you and I are one” (Jn 17:21).
– 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)