If your brother sins against you

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Sept. 4, 2011
Ezek 33:7-9; Ps 95; Rom 13:8-10; Matt 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, who are you to judge? It’s all relative. It obviously works for him. Be a tolerant person, and don’t say anything.”

No, wait, that’s not what he said! Hmm. Oh, here we go:

Jesus said to his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, don’t say anything to him, because that would be way too awkward. Instead, tell everyone else about his sin, so that they can agree with you about what a jerk he is and what an innocent victim you are!”

No, that can’t be right! For that would be the sin of detraction: revealing someone’s faults and failings to other people, without a just reason—which is a sin against human dignity and honor. (CCC 2477) That’s not what Christ said either. I must have it here somewhere. Okay:

Jesus said to his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

What our Lord is commanding here—and he is commanding it—is the practice of “fraternal correction,” one brother or sister to another. It is also called “admonishing the sinner,” and it is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. The old Catholic Encyclopedia observes that, in really rare, extreme circumstances, it can even be a mortal sin to decline to correct a sinful brother in this way! Normally it’s not that serious. But it still is a command, a precept; and we sin if we fail to carry it out, like the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading.

Now, you might think: it was so much easier back then! We live in 21st century America. Their world was completely different! But was it? St. Augustine, writing nearly 1600 years ago (City of God I, 9), said:

For often do we ignore the duty of teaching and admonishing, and sometimes even of rebuking and correcting, sinners. We do this either when we weary of the effort, or when we hesitate to offend their dignity, or because we wish to avoid enmities which might impede and injure us in respect to some temporal thing which either our greed still desires to obtain or our infirmity fears to lose. … [or] because [we are] waiting for a more propitious time, or for fear of making matters worse by doing so…

It sounds familiar, right? And we might add a couple more reasons to St. Augustine’s list.

  • We might be hesitant to tell a brother his fault because we are not sure that we actually know what we’re talking about; we’re not sure that we have a firm enough grasp of what is right and what is wrong.
  • Or we might be hesitant because we know how many faults and sins we have, and we feel like a hypocrite. Where do we get off correcting him? And what if he throws our faults back at us?

These are real concerns. And the answer to them is the same: We need to turn to our Lord Jesus, who teaches through his Church, and learn from him: we need to learn the Church’s solid moral teaching on what is right and wrong, so that we understand it well. And not just understand it, but seek to live it: to truly seek to turn away from our sins, and instead live fully in the virtue and goodness and love in which Christ leads us.

For when we do this, then we are not setting ourselves up as the standard of moral perfection, from which our brother falls short; but rather we invite him to join with us—in believing in the truth of Christ, and in seeking to conform our hearts and lives to his way—to journey together, falling and getting back up, always keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Heb 12:1)

The rector of my seminary recommended that we carry out fraternal correction—and that we do it on our knees—that we get on our knees, and thus truly show our humility and love, even as we tell our brother his fault.

For fraternal correction is a work of charity, the Catechism tells us (1829)—of self-giving love—the love that St. Paul commends to us in our second reading. And we find this in one of the books that we will be using to train our parish’s new Stephen Ministers this fall: Speaking the Truth in Love: How to Be an Assertive Christian—where “assertive” is used in contrast to both “aggressive” and “passive,” “a constructive way of living and relating … [that is] honest, direct, open, and natural.” (p. 23) And it speaks of this action of “admonishing a Christian brother or sister caught in a sin” as “an opportunity to love, support, and” serve them (p. 84).

For even while your brother hurts you by sinning against you, he also hurts himself. Regardless of the level of guilt he has—for maybe he does not fully know what he is doing, or maybe he is under some sort of pressure—nevertheless, objectively, his own act of sin is contrary how he was created and contrary to God’s will. It is doing him harm; it is binding him in shackles; it can ultimately destroy him.

And that is why Christ is preaching here, not tolerance that would leave your brother in his sin, but an ever-increasing effort to pull him out of it, to loose him, to set him free, on earth and in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, it is not just some sinful brother that Christ wants to free from sin: it is you. And in the confessional in the back he will meet you and set you free from it, if you are ready to be set free. He gave his apostles that power to bind and to loose, and how I love to exercise that power in sacramental confession, to hear Christ break those chains, in his love and mercy, and set you back on the right path. I always suggest that everyone make use of this sacrament once a month, for your spiritual health and growth.

This morning, after people leave from Mass, I will go into the confessional and be available to hear confessions. Let Christ work through the power he gave to loose; let him give you his abundant life. And then, in all humility and love, invite your brother to walk that path of life with you.

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