Am I my brother's keeper? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 18:15–20:

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 others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Where is it toughest to be a true Christian? For me, the answer is obvious — when I’m driving. When I’m on the road, that whole judge not lest ye be judged thing goes right out the window … along with a few choice words and/or gestures. This does not always work out as anonymously as I’d like. On one occasion, having gone into a paroxysm over someone’s belated and abrupt lane change, it turned out that we were both pulling into the same gas station. The woman started to apologize, but I was embarrassed enough to stop her and tell her that I owed her the apology. Fortunately, she had a good sense of humor and we wished each other well over some sheepish laughter.

This also amuses my wife, who during our recent vacation road trip (our first in an RV, actually) kept asking me what I was muttering about. When I explained that I was offering lessons in proper driving habits to the other benighted travelers on the road, she asked, “Do you really think they’re listening to you?” Of course they are, I wanted to say, or at least they should be. If everyone else would just listen to me, the roads would work much better. As opposed to, say, following my own example at times.

So much for the whole humility thing, too.

Today’s Gospel reading brings all this squarely to mind, however, because it deals with the same issue in a much more serious manner. Jesus teaches us that we are to leave judgment of souls to Him, but what are we to do with bad behavior and missteps? Needless to say, Jesus doesn’t advise that we should wildly gesticulate from the road and call others morons (oh, well!), but that we do have a responsibility to correct those who sin against others. And in our first reading, Ezekiel warns that the responsibility will get accounted to our own standing with the Lord:

If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

The ancient question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” comes from Genesis 4:9, spoken by Cain to the Lord to cover up his murder of his brother Abel. The answer from the Lord shows that Cain was certainly accountable for his sin against his brother. Ezekiel’s prophecy shows that accountability goes beyond that, however. We are all part of the community of God, and part of our duty to that community is to evangelize His word. That becomes more necessary when members of the community fall into error or sin, and the need to proclaim the truth of His word becomes all the more important.

But how are we to accomplish this task, not just for the best effect but also to keep from falling into sin ourselves? After all, the Pharisees spend most of the Gospels rebuking Jesus and the disciples over what they see as violations of the Law, and eventually would conspire to put Jesus to death over those. Jesus also specifically warned against judging others, although as we see in this Gospel passage, He also makes a crucial distinction between dealing with the sin and dealing with the sinner.

Rather than make a public spectacle of rebuking sin, as the Pharisees did and fed their own sense of authority by doing so, Jesus instructs us to start with a personal effort to resolve the issue. This is also how evangelization works best in all other contexts, too — in one-on-one encounters. For those who feel sinned against, it allows for the chance to work things out without involving anyone else and to give the other person an opportunity to make things right. Only if that does not resolve the situation are we to involve others, starting off with two or three others to witness the effort, and then by bringing it to the whole community if that does not work. If the sin remains and the person is not repentant, then Jesus recommends shunning as the final answer.

What is most notable in this progression is that it focuses especially on peace between all parties. Even in the extreme, when the whole church gets involved, the emphasis is on whether to remain engaged with the person who persists in offense, error, or sin. There is no “punishment” for sin involved, and no consequence other than the loss of membership in the community — which the individual chooses by refusing to listen to the church and mend his ways. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters to the extent of making sure they have heard the truth and the Gospel, but beyond that, each person has to choose whether to accept it and live by it. The choice to harden the heart belongs to that individual; our responsibility, as Ezekiel prophesies, is to evangelize the truth and the Word.

This goes beyond how we relate to each other, too. We make this same decision in our relationship with the Lord as we do with His church. When we sin against the Lord, He calls us back to account for those sins, and waits for us to “listen” to Him in our hearts. Jesus provides us with witnesses to remind us of His truth, and then the church itself to give us another path to finding our way back to Him. If we do not listen, we remove ourselves from that community whether we’re still attending it or not.

For a great example of this reconciliation process through peace, read the epistles of Paul, especially to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth fell into a number of errors, and Paul had to rebuke them on several issues. However, Paul never disowns the church, nor does he wash his hands of it. Instead, Paul evangelizes the Word and rebukes their actions while not making assumptions about their hearts or motives. Paul writes passionately at times, but he never loses sight of the fact that these are his brothers and sisters, and his greatest desire is to see them correct their errors and come back into full communion with Christ.

Maybe that’s something I should consider on my next road trip. Rather than get angry at foolish behavior, perhaps it would be better to pray for my brothers and sisters on the road so that they could return to the straight and narrow. Or at least their own lane.

The front-page image is a detail from a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). In the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.