23rd Sunday Ordinary Time – Cycle A
Ez 33:7-9 Psalm Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 Rom 13:8-10 Mt 18:15-20
A pirate with a peg-leg, hook and eye patch decides to give up his life of piracy so he goes to confession. After making a good confession, the priest asks him - "How did you end up with a peg leg?" The pirate replies, "I was swept overboard and my leg was eaten by a shark.” "That is terrible," says the priest. "What about your hook?" "Well," answers the pirate, "I lost my hand to a Spaniard whose treasure ship we had boarded to steal his gold.” “Incredible. How’d you get the eye patch?" "Eating grapefruit - I was eating my grapefruit when the juice squirted into my eye”. “That’s doesn’t sound like that would destroy your eye.” said the priest. "Yer right Father,” says the pirate, "but it was my first day with the new hook."
Ships are symbols of the Church
From the time of Noah and the Ark until now the image of the ship has always been a symbol of the Church – a place of safety on the storm-tossed waters of the world. The readings today speak about two different senses of the Church, the Family, and the Church gathered here today.
The Family is the Domestic Church
When John Paul II described the family as the Domestic Church he wanted us to understand the mission of the family as the first place where the Gospel is lived out. As parents we have the primary responsibility to witness the love of Christ in the way that we give ourselves to each another as husbands and wives. We show the love of Christ to our children in the way that we sacrifice for them and each other in our washing the laundry, keeping the house clean, going to work, doing the dishes – the list goes on and on. All of us have experienced self-less love to varying degrees. Some of our parents were evangelists “par excellence” of this Christ-like love, others not so much.
Children in the family have a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to one another, and into the world. All of us are called to imitate the love of Christ as Brothers and Sisters. We do this in how we learn to love each other and forgive one another as Christ forgave us. Christ chose the family relationship to help us grow in our relationship with God. It is not always easy, but it is ultimately rewarding.
The readings today give us some advice on how to grow these relationships. Among sailors, there is a responsibility that the entire crew shares called “keeping watch”. Keeping watch means that some of the crew is responsible for the safe operation of the ship for the entire time that the ship is at sea. These sailors have a responsibility to do their “duty” – The lives of their ship-mates depend on it. That duty might be keeping an eye on the weather, tending to the engines, or being alert for navigation hazards such as reefs or sand-bars where the ship might get stranded.
In the first reading today the prophet Ezekiel exhorts us to be attentive to our duty – to watch out for shoals where we might get stranded, or reefs that might tear out the belly of the ship. But he is not speaking in the nautical sense, but rather in the human sense – Ezekiel begins today with the exhortation – “Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;” he calls us to keep watch over the souls of our fellow ship-mates here in the Church. This statement of God leads us to ask three questions – How do I keep watch, what am I on watch for, and how do I sound the alarm.
What to keep watch for?
In keeping our watch, we are like those sailors aboard ship who are looking out for the safety of all the souls aboard their vessel. God has given us the job of speaking to those who are leading lives of peril, whose souls are in danger of floundering on shoals, or running aground on the sand bars of sin. The reading from Ezekiel reminds us that we will be held accountable for how we keep the watch that God has given us – it is a serious responsibility. When we recognize that souls are in peril, we have a responsibility to sound the alarm, so that the danger can be averted.
Listen to God in your heart
Our own relationship with God is an essential part of us keeping watch. If we do not have a relationship with God, then how will we hear his voice? Prayer – speaking and (more importantly) listening to God is the first part to doing our duty well. We listen to God by hearing him in our hearts – the place where we make decisions about how we are going to act. This is a slightly different understanding of heart than the modern American usage of the word – which typically means the place where we experience our emotions.
Authentic prayer disposes us to hear His voice.
Authentic prayer, speaking and listening to God can take many different forms, from a spontaneous sharing of your day with God in the evening, reflecting on scripture, or praying the rosary. All of us are called to foster a deeper relationship with God through prayer. All of these ways of listening to God invite us to perceive the world a little more each day through the perspective of God’s heart by allowing ourselves to be challenged by His word and the teaching of His church. To listen to God means that we hear him in our hearts and our hearts are converted. That is why the refrain from the psalm today is “If today you hear his voice – harden not your hearts!”
God speaks to us through relationships
Daily prayer disposes our hearts to be open and aware of Gods presence in the world, but God does not normally speak to us directly. It is rare in the spiritual life for God to speak to us like the Captain of an old sailing ship bellowing out – “Avast there Deacon– Stand by to come about!” The normal way that God speaks to us is through one another, in our relationships, and actions. Prayer sensitizes us so that we can see the work of God in our lives more clearly. It teaches us how to look for the footprints of God in the history of our lives. Sometimes the messages are “atta boys”, and other times they are a smack upside the head with the spiritual 2x4 when God calls us to face the painful truths about how we are carrying out our duty – and those messages are also important for our ongoing conversion.
When sailors are trained to stand watch at sea, they are given “Standing Orders” which tell them what to do in case of an emergency. For the Jews, and for us the “Standing Orders” is the Law, the writings of Moses and the prophets that discussed what to watch out for and what to do. Living the Law trains us in how to love. Jesus often criticized the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they lived the law without love. St. Paul teaches us that the goal of the Law is to lead us to love. In his letter to the Romans St. Paul begins with “Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” What he means is that when we carry out our duty in our families, the law of love must always guide us so that our proclamation of the Gospel is living and effective.
Sounding the Alarm
So, shipmates, “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.”
Sin is personal, it destroys relationships – either our relationship with God or our relationship with one another. Sin injures us, and it injures the one we sin against. Sin destroys the community – whether that community is the family (the Domestic Church) or this larger church community. When we witness sin we have an obligation to point it out – with charity. This means discerning the right place and way to communicate the fault so that healing can take place. This is why we need to be steeped in prayer and in love.
Seek the Truth with Love
Christ goes on to say that if this does not work, then take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ – bring in additional people – to see the truth of the situation – not to take sides in a war of he-said / she said, but to see the truth.
In order for this to work, we need to be rooted in love and humility, so that we can truly listen to one another and accept correction from one another. This is not how the world works. In business we have contracts and penalties and judges – we have the law. The law is based on a fundamental distrust of individuals. In the Church we have the law of love that calls husbands and wives to be humble with one another, to correct out of love and to accept correction with humility – in their hearts. Likewise, Fathers and Mothers evangelize their children by how they show their love to them – providing for them, guiding them as they are raised. As children we are called to imitate the love that our parents show us in how they love one another and how they love us.
What is our witness to the Gospel?
God desires a relationship of love with us, and so he has given us two families in which to learn how to enter into relationship with him – our families of blood; the domestic church, and our family of faith in the Catholic Church. In both families we have a duty to do, to watch out for one another’s safety. In the Gospel today Christ shows us the way to do this. Christ has placed a two-fold challenge before us this week – To recognize God’s hand when we are called to account this week and not harden our hearts; and to respond to Him with courage when he wants us to use us to sound the alarm. The question is - do we have the courage?