Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
As a deacon, I often find myself in two very different worlds. One example of that is that I work for two large organizations. I work during the week as an engineer and manager for one of the largest lumber manufacturing companies in the world, and on the weekend I work for the largest organized religion in the world. They both have rule books to follow: the Employee Handbook for my day job, and a little manual called the Code of Canon Law for my weekend gig. I'm sure many of you have worked for a larger organization with a rule book that they printed up and gave to everyone. So I ask you: did today's Gospel remind you of them in any respect? At my corporate employer, we have a policy that, if you have a problem with someone, you are to go to your supervisor, and if you can't resolve it you go to your superintendent, and then to the plant manager or Human Resources, and so on. I work at a manufacturing facility, so in an office the titles would be different but a similar progressive management structure would be spelled out, the intent being to resolve the issue quickly at the local level and restore a workplace that is congenial and team-oriented.
Today's Gospel is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus gives us a step-by-step procedure for how to resolve issues in our lives. Throughout his ministry he gave many guidelines on all aspects of life, but here he lays out a conflict resolution technique, not a lot different than the one that we see in a secular workplace. But there is one important difference: Jesus tells his disciples to try to work it out between themselves as the first step, and most workplace policies won’t say that – their first step is local management. Why? Sadly, history has shown and most employers know that most people can’t control their emotions enough to make it work, and if they try it, it often escalates the level of conflict to something even more serious. If one or both parties don’t want to resolve the issue, or rather their idea of resolving it is that the other party admit complete responsibility, it won’t get resolved. Whether that is because of evil intent by one or both, or just self-righteous indignation over a perceived injury, it takes two people committed to working it out for it to succeed. So why does Jesus start with this, given its poor track record? That answer is given in the second reading.
There, Paul gives one of his beautiful discourses on love. He tells the Christians in Rome that love is that which fulfills the law, that love is the only thing they owe to one another, that all other good actions and the absence of bad actions is assumed under that one word: love. Jesus can tell his followers to work it out themselves because he has already told them that they must regard each other with the love that Paul speaks of so eloquently. When love is the basis of our actions, they are more properly understood by others and conflict is avoided, or if it occurs is quickly resolved.
Saint Augustine makes this point by providing an example. The example he uses is a parent and a kidnapper: a father or mother may punish a child, and the kidnapper may offer kind words to the child, but the test of true value to the child is not the action but the motive – a parent who punishes out of love to teach a child an important lesson versus a criminal who would lure the child with kind words and candy to further an evil design. Augustine concludes with this famous conclusion: “Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good” [ Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John, paragraph 8, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/170207.htm ].
Of course, implied by the saint is: love is the three-fold love of God, others, and self. Unfortunately, love of self seems to predominate if not totally eclipse the other two. If you remember way back in February, we were reading from chapter 5 of Matthew, Christ told his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount that they must be a light for the world, not putting it under a bushel basket but on a lampstand for all to see [Matthew 5:14-15]. Now that we’ve worked our way through Matthew this year and are now in chapter 18, Jesus’ remarks assume that one is being that light. If one is not a light to others, not looking to demonstrate Christian values to those around them, then today’s instruction to work with your brother or sister to resolve issues won’t work at all. We must become the peacemakers Christ called us to be in the Beatitudes. Unfortunately, secular workplaces cannot assume that there will be love or good will between employees, even among people who would profess to be Christians.
In Pope Francis’ first major work as pope, The Joy of the Gospel, he instructs preachers that the major objective of a homily is synthesis. This is a fancy way of saying that a homily should put the readings, which are small segments of the larger works, and put them within the bigger picture – how they fit together with the whole of Christian teaching as well as the culture and day-to-day lives of the people that are hearing it. [ https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/docu... ] The second reading is a synthesis from Paul, calling love the key. Augustine’s synthesis was also making love that essential ingredient which binds together whole picture, putting together a beautiful mosaic with the actions of our lives in which the individual decisions we make are the pieces, but love is both the basis and the end goal of them all.
This is why Christ did not leave us an extensive set of procedures, a Christian version of the Employee Handbook. He left us many examples of how love plays out in our lives, whether it is the parables such as the good Samaritan, whether it is blessings upon those who seem to be bereft of blessing, such as the poor, or whether it was the greatest act of love, his Passion. We read about these examples in the Liturgy of the Word every Mass, and then discuss how to apply those lessons of love to our lives in the homily. Love doesn’t say how we should resolve our conflicts with others, but it tells us we must do so.
As we continue with the Mass, let the Eucharist we receive give us the grace to understand God’s love in our lives and make us able to reflect that love to others we encounter in life. May we truly be able to synthesize the teachings of the Christian faith into our lives, so that following the Lord’s teachings, they become routine and assumed. May we all understand The Way, having Christ in us, so that Augustine’s dictate of “Love, and do what you will” is not a dangerous statement allows one undue license, but is seen as it actually is – a call to a very moral life.