The common theme that runs through today’s readings is our responsibility for one another and, in particular, our duty of fraternal correction.
In the first reading we hear the mandate of God for Ezekiel to be the sentinel of Israel. A sentinel is a watchman who looks out for the city and informs the people of any incoming danger. Ezekiel’s mission as prophet is to forewarn the people and dissuade the wicked from their evil ways. As baptized, we too share in this prophetic mission, which makes us in truth our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
The second reading provides the reason for this mandate, which is love. In fact, St. Paul tells us that the whole commandment is summed up in love of neighbor.
The gospel goes further in Illustrating the importance of fraternal correctionin preserving communion in the community. Today’s reading provides a structure for correcting and disciplining wayward members and a progressive procedure for resolving conflicts.
Fraternal correction is the act and the skill of constructive criticism. It requires courage, humility and charity. When a relationship breaks down, the first step to take is for the offended person to approach his brother and point out his fault. Unfortunately, what happens is that before the offender knows his fault, the whole community already does. Because of lack of courage to confront his brother, the aggrieved party often seeks relief in catharses to an all-too-eager audience. The situation is aggravatedwhen there is a thriving culture of gossip in the community, not to mention a propensity for the social media.
There is nothing like an honest face-to-face dialogue between two brothers in conflict. Besides courage, this exercise requires humility from both, but initially from the aggrieved to make the first move. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him…” He does not wait for the offender’s apology.
Above all, it requires charity which enables the offended to see from the perspective of the offender and to recognize that his brother is hurting more than he. St. Augustine gives us this precious insight, “Whoever has offended you, in offending you, has inflicted a serious injury upon himself; and would you not care for a brother’s injury?… You must forget the offence you have received but not the injury of one of your brethren.” With this attitude, fraternal correction ceases to be a reaction to an offense, but becomes a pure act of love.
Hopefully, the courage, humility and charity of the victim will win over his errant brother. If this fails, the gospel recommends the next step of soliciting the help of one or two community members. If this also fails, the case is brought to the Church.
In all these steps, the sole aim of fraternal correction is to win back the erring member so that he remains in communion with the community. If still he does not listen to the Church, he is to be treated like a gentile or a tax collector. Harsh as it may sound, the sentence is self-inflicted because by his obstinacy the person has opted to cut himself off from the community.
Does this mean that the “outcast” is totally lost? It is interesting to note that the verdict given him is that he be treated as a gentile or a tax collector. We know that the“gentiles and the tax collectors” are a group particularly close to Jesus and are the object of his pursuing love and mercy. One more interesting note, our gospel reading is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep and is followed by Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. The point is that God does not give up; he never tires of calling everyone to communion.
Finally, our reading ends with the familiar verse on prayer. When everything is done to bring back an errant brother to the community and nothing works, we pray. And Jesus assures us that “it shall be granted… by my heavenly Father.”
Fraternal correction is a delicate art. It can make or unmake a person.
In a little village chapel, an altar boy accidentally dropped the cruet of wine while serving Sunday Mass. The priest slapped him and shouted, “Get out, and don’t ever come back.” Somewhere in a city church, another altar boy serving Sunday Mass committed the same mistake of dropping the cruet. The priest appeased the nervous lad with a smile and gently whispered, “Someday, you’ll be a priest.”
The first boy was Josip Broz who later came to be known as Marshall Tito, the communist dictator of Yugoslavia. The second was Fulton Sheen, who became a bishop and is now a candidate for canonization.*