Criticism and correction in the spirit of mutual love
(Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday revolve around the responsibility we should exercise towards each other as fellow disciples of Christ. We have a duty to encourage each other along the right path, morally and spiritually, and sometimes we might have to offer criticism to fellow members of the Church community if they are doing something wrong. It goes without saying then that we should also be prepared to treat criticism of our own conduct as an opportunity to grow in holiness and spritual maturity.
To begin Mass we think of the times when we've persisted in wrong actions and been unwilling to accept correction, and we ask God for his pardon and healing.
At first sight Jesus' words in the gospel passage this Sunday appear to have a legalistic flavour quite unlike his usual style of preaching. These few lines of Matthew's gospel might well reflect discussions in the early Church communities about the sort of discipline that should be applied when a member of the community "does something wrong" as the passage puts it.
The issue here, and the advice Jesus gives, isn't directed to the person "doing something wrong" or what constitutes wrongdoing. Rather, Jesus is giving some guidelines about how the rest of the community should react and deal with individuals who deviate from Christian values and principles.
According to Christ the people who are close to such individuals have a responsibility to raise the matter and try to point out their moral error and win them back. The first approach should be a quiet, confidential conversation. If the person refuses to respond to this Jesus suggests further actions to persuade them to admit their error and change direction.
I think we have to read the specific advice in the gospel passage in relation to the general principle that St. Paul puts forward in the second reading.
Paul takes the view that relationships between believers in Christ and within the Church community at large, should be guided by the overarching principle of love. "Love is the answer to every one of the commandments" he says. In other words, every individual moral rule or Christian commandment expresses some aspect of the general Christian attitude of love of neighbour.
If everyone shows genuine regard for the welfare of everyone else, if everyone is prepared to sacrifice his or her own interests for the sake of everyone else, then the whole community will be filled with an atmosphere of "mutual love" as St. Paul calls it. And if the members of the Church community are genuinely committed to this overarching principle it follows that they won't break any of the individual commandments like committing adultery, stealing, coveting and so on, because these actions all show a lack of love and regard for others.
Part of the atmosphere of "mutual love" which is supposed to mark the Christian community is an attitude of responsibility towards each other. Christian community life isn't a free-for-all. We are all members one of another, St. Paul says in one of his letters, and that implies that every Christian believer should have a sense of genuine care and concern for the moral welfare of all the other believers.
Obviously it's not a matter of being busybodies, poking our noses into the private details of other people's moral affairs. It's more to do with that fact that everyone who wants to claim the label of Christian is committing him- or herself to certain values which we all have to pursue, and accepting certain prohibitions which we all have to avoid.
What I mean by that is that every member of the Christian community is committed to pursuing a closer relationship with God, cultivating personal holiness and fostering qualities like compassion towards other people, humility in regard to ourselves, to give two examples. At the same time we're also committed to avoiding wasting our time and energy on things that distract us from God; and we're committed to resisting qualities like hard-heartedness and pride.
And part of the mutual love that St. Paul says is the basic principle of Christian relationships is a practice of mutual correction: a readiness to accept advice and even criticism from each other, a readiness to invite and welcome the criticism of our fellow Christians which might help us mature or make progress in our spiritual lives.
That's surely the purpose behind the guidelines Jesus lays down in the gospel passage. The measures which he suggests his listeners adopt to convince someone that he's on the wrong path arise from the fact that in Christian community life we aren't isolated individuals, but we're all responsible for each other. We have a duty towards each other to point it out when someone is doing something wrong just as we have a duty to listen humbly when a fellow Christian criticises.
As I say, it's not about a group of busybodies having a licence to boss everyone else around and interfere in their lives. It's about recognising the value of mutual correction in the Church community with the aim of enhancing everyone's efforts to draw closer to God and to strengthen the qualities that make up holiness of character.
Lastly it's important to mention how the first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, shows that this practice of criticism or correction has important limits.
We might well have a duty to point out to a fellow believer that he or she is doing something wrong - to "warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent" says Ezekiel in the vivid language of Old Testament prophecy. But if the "wicked man" chooses to be stubborn and ignore our advice and warnings then we have done as much as we can and we're not responsible for the fact that he persists in his wickedness.
Our responsibility for each other is not unrestricted and there are limits to how far we should go in offering advice and criticism. Ultimately only God knows the influences that are at work in people's minds that make them blind to the harmful consequences of their behaviour, and so ultimately only God can judge a person. When we have said everything we can to persuade someone, we have to respect their freedom even to continue on a course which we believe is destructive to themselves.
In many situations like that the best way we can show love for someone is to pray for them and to wait patiently for an increase of wisdom or enlightenment. Many of us know from our personal experience that very often people have to make disastrous mistakes before they learn a bit of moral and spiritual maturity. And when we have made a disastrous mistake we might realise that the warnings people offered us, which irritated us so much at the time, were actually an expression of their care and love for us.
That seems to me to be the basic lesson of all the readings this Sunday when you take them together: the mutual love and responsibility we should have towards each other, and the criticism or correction we should be prepared equally to offer and receive as fellow members of the Body of Christ.