The Lord freely bestows on us the gift of his love, without any qualification or merit on our part. He points out to us, however, that love carries with it a requirement of its own: that we share the gift with one another. Thus the scriptures often repeat his commandment: love one another. Yet human relationships can be quite intricate, and it is often difficult for us to obey the commandment of love. Misunderstandings arise even between the best of friends, between spouses, siblings and fellow disciples. Even the saints are not exempt. St. Paul often endured persecutions and suffering from the very people he served. “We suffer all kinds of afflictions and yet are not overcome” (2 Cor 4:8). The witness of the saints shows us that it really is possible to persevere in love, no matter how others may treat us.
But we often wonder how to respond with love when others offend us. Jesus gives us some very practical answers in today’s gospel. “If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you.” Here the Lord shows that he is an advocate not only for the one who is hurt but also for the offender. We are not simply to keep the offense to ourselves because that does not resolve anything. We are not at peace ourselves, and the offender, perhaps not even knowing the effect of his actions, may repeat the offense. On the other hand, being offended does not give us a license to retaliate any way we please. We only make matters worse if we engage in gossip, spreading malicious talk in order to get even. Jesus tells us to go directly to our brother or sister. The longer we delay, the more difficult it becomes to settle the matter. More temptations arise. Unresolved hurts lead to resentment. The bitterness in our hearts becomes the source of many nasty thoughts, words and actions.
In the first reading, the Lord affirms through the prophet Ezekiel the importance of informing our offender. There is a higher purpose than merely obtaining peace or justice for ourselves. When the Lord sends us to warn or teach or discipline our neighbor, it is a call to serve. It is a mission of love. Were we to close our eyes to his wickedness, it would not be love, for we would leave him in spiritual danger, perhaps allow him to victimize others, and become an accomplice to his deeds. When we are given an opportunity to try to turn a wicked man from his way, it is an occasion for us to express our love of God through our love of neighbor.
St. Paul instructs us further on this way of love, pointing out in the second reading, “Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.” The law does not demand that we always confront everyone about every wrong; that would make life unbearable for everybody. But there are times when it is the Lord’s will that we serve in this difficult way of “fraternal correction.” Motivated by love we are to “go and point out his fault,” with respect, in private. “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” – a victory for the Lord!
What if he does not listen? Jesus shows us that love does not give up easily. He tells us, “summon another, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses.” Sometimes, because we too are sinners, our word of correction may strike the offender as pretentious. The testimony of others can help to allow the truth to shine forth. If that does not work, Jesus recommends a further step, that we request the Church, the community of believers, to help correct the wrongdoing of another. If the misbehaving brother continues to reject even the counsel of the Church, Jesus’ advice is to regard him like “a Gentile or a tax collector.” A Gentile is an unbeliever; a tax collector in Jewish society is an unrepentant sinner. In other words, we are to acknowledge that our brother is behaving like an unbeliever, and that his own sin is cutting him off from the community.
We might think that, once we have taken all the possible steps to bring an erring brother back to the right way, we can give up and move on to some other task. He will never listen; he has no faith; he is not repentant; why bother? But Jesus, who never gives up on anyone, reveals that we too are never to give up on anyone. Our call to love our neighbor does not end with “excommunication.” Jesus gives us another step: the powerful weapon of communal prayer. We should use this weapon at all times, but especially when all our efforts at reconciliation seem futile. The Lord never abandons sinners; he never abandons us. Indeed, his consoling promise is that where two or three are gathered in his name, “there am I in their midst.” Because the Lord is in our midst, we can persevere with hope, striving to fulfill our mission as his ambassadors of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17-20).
How do I share the love of the Lord with others? What is my response when others offend me? Do I persevere in love?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.