Following is the prepared text from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
September 10, 2017
Jesus speaks to us today about restoring peace and not remaining a spectator when a brother does wrong. Jesus is not talking about making peace between nations, and not about repairing relationships in the abstract. His focus is the family, the “brother” who sins against us personally. Jesus insists that we not ignore our brother when he sins, thinking, “It’s his fault; he has to take the first step. He needs to apologize.” Such lazy thinking has no place in the Kingdom of God, where apathy and indifference are not allowed. The love of God impels whoever’s offended to act first and not wait for the offender to do so.
Jesus says (Mt 18:15ff), “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault – [not wait until he says he’s sorry; no, go but keep it] between you and him alone.” If our brother listens, harmony has been restored. But if he does not listen, Jesus insists that we make still greater efforts, taking one or two others along to help our brother to see and have a change of heart. If still not successful, we are to engage the larger community. If still another step is needed, then, He says, do that, too! Treat the brother like “a tax collector or sinner,” He says. Recall how Jesus treated them with so much compassion that He was called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” As members of His body, we can earn that title, too.
To explore this in greater depth, let’s look more closely at three words He employed: “brother,” “if,” and “agree.”
First, brother. Jesus does not say, “Your enemy or your opponent” or even “your colleague or your associate.” Rather, by repeating that one word, brother, He reminds us of the family bonds of love that unite us in the Church. Jesus told us to call God Father, and He gave us His Mother to be our mother too. The Church, then, is far more than an assembly of the like-minded, much more than a club or political party. It is the family of God, a family called and formed by our heavenly Father. In Baptism, we are reborn as His beloved children. Not only does God free us from the slavery of sin and addictions, He rescues us from false labels that sow confusion in our minds and heart, and He reminds us of our identity and destiny as beloved sons and daughters of God, with the great privilege to call Him “Father.”
A second word that appears 9 times in the 6 verses of the Gospel is “if:” “If your brother does something wrong… If he listens… If he does not listen…” This recurring use of “if” shows how greatly He desires that we put it into practice, adapting it to situations unpredictable: “If this happens, do this; but if that happens then take that step, and then if he does not respond, do this,” and so forth. All these “ifs” show us how intent the Lord is to save the lost, through repeated efforts by those who make up His Body, the Church.
Pope Francis, in one of his conversations with pilgrims in Rome, told them, “We must always be ready to welcome the lost.” Then, suddenly he stopped himself and said, “No, I am wrong, I should have said: we must always be ready to go in search of the lost, searching until we find them. We can’t just wait for them to come to us.” We who have the experience of ourselves being lost and then found by Jesus understand well what Pope Francis is saying. Jesus repeatedly searches for practical ways to help us to be brothers and sisters to one another, especially when a brother or sister wanders away.
A third word of today’s Gospel deserves further reflection: the word “agree.” “If two of you agree…about anything for which you are to pray, it shall be granted to you by my heavenly Father.” To act in “agreement” with one another, to “agree” on what to pray for, assures that our prayers will be heard. This is why the Prayer we call the Eucharist is so powerful, and why it surpasses that of individual prayers.
It is instructive to recall that the Greek word for “agree” in this text is symphoneo, from which we have the English word “symphony.” Our prayers have great power when our voices and our hearts resound in harmony, when they blend without dissonance, even though each has its own nuance. Only Christ can bring about such harmony, and He does so most willingly within the family. From the moment that husband and wife exchange wedding vows, the Lord gives them a harmony that is unbreakable, indissoluble. “What God has joined,” Jesus says, “man must not divide.” This gift of “agreement,” this harmony between husband and wife, has the enduring grace to last forever, yet not without daily readiness to forgive and seek forgiveness. Harmony is not something the couple achieves on their own. Just as a symphony orchestra needs rehearsals and a good conductor, so too marriages and the family. A marriage that “God has joined” needs to be fine-tuned; its harmony needs at times be restored, and this happens with the help of God. How true it is, “The family that prays together stays together.”
To be a channel of God’s peace for our brother who has done wrong, we must first unite ourselves with His mercy, and then speak only to win him back, not to win an argument, not to pay back a hurt or to vent our anger. The whole purpose is to help our brother to be one again with us in the rich mercy of God.
Shortly after his election, Pope Francis was asked how he saw himself. He answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner…on whom the Lord has turned His gaze.”
To be a servant of Christ, we must never forget that we ourselves are sinners on whom a loving Father gazes with mercy. We all need both to offer fraternal correction and to receive it. We can speak the truth in love because Jesus has first loved us.