For weeks we have been reading the stories in Matthew’s Gospel that follow the third great sermon, the Sermon of Parables, on the hidden power of the Holy Spirit. This week and next week we read from the fourth great sermon, the Sermon on Community, where we find what that hidden power brings about.
Any discussion of grace must have both these poles: both the power of God, which comes first, and the transformation it brings about in us. And because that power is one, the transformation it brings about in us is unity, Christian community, the Church.
The first two readings set the scene. In Ezekiel we read of the prophet’s responsibility to tell the people of their sins. “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.”
For the second reading, we are now on chapter thirteen of Romans, the first of the last four chapters of Paul’s masterpiece on grace, where he too discusses the transformation that grace brings about in us. He tells us that all the moral law, all the wickednesses about which the prophet must warn us, are all about love. “… And whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The work of the Spirit in us is love. The commandments are necessary because they are part of (not the whole of) love, and correcting wickedness is necessary as itself a way to love the sinner.
Our Gospel is about correcting the sinner: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
The Lectionary has skipped over the first half of the Sermon, where we are taught to be lowly like children, to receive the lowly children, and to go in search of the lost sheep. Next week we will read the end of the sermon, on forgiving seventy and seven times. In all, we are talking about the requirements of community.
This week’s reading walks through progressive ways of correcting our brother’s sin. It ends by talking about the Church, and this point of arrival is essential, because what we are talking about is the Church. If you can’t correct him, you “tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” – which, coming from Jesus, means you still seek to save him, Jesus is always reaching out to the tax collectors – but you know he is no living the life of Christ’s body, the Church, no longer full of the Spirit that binds us together.
Then Jesus repeats a line he had said to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The jurisdiction he gives to Peter and to the Apostles is a function of the jurisdiction he gives to his Church as a whole. Peter is important because the Church is important; the bishop is a ministry of the Church, the community of Christians.
(There is a strange detail in the Greek, which says “heavens” when it talks about Peter, and only “heaven” here. The tradition sees in this, perhaps, a reference to Peter’s universal jurisdiction compared to a local jurisdiction discussed here. But I don’t think the plural “heavens” alone gives us this distinction.)
In any case, what we are discussing here is the bigger question of the Church. But what is remarkable about our passage is that we are talking about that big question in terms of the little details of personal relationships.
Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” That is the goal: brotherhood. That’s the meaning of all the universal stuff about the Church, the papacy, the bishops, etc.: the transcendent value of brotherhood, which exists above all on this local level of fraternal correction.
And it is expressed not only in our membership in the universal Church, but in the details of personal relationships. You talk to your brother at all – that is, you are willing to correct him, and in next week’s reading, to forgive him – and you talk to him one on one, and then two or three on one, because you care about the person himself. That is Christian fraternity.
You begin on the personal level, too, out of respect for the person. The Catechism’s magnificent section on the Eighth Commandment talks about “detraction” (CCC 2477), whereby you tell people something true about someone else’s faults, but something they don’t need to know. That is a sin, because you should protect people’s reputations, protect them against other people’s “rash judgment,” another sin against truth and charity in the same place.
The point is, you don’t denounce someone in public, because you care about them and want to help them, not to destroy them. It is a magnificent little detail of the fraternity that is at the heart of the great universal doctrines about the Church.
What conversations is your love of the Church calling you to have?