By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - on the Gospel
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Reaching Out to the Erring

Ezekiel 33:7-9 Romans 13:8-10 Matthew 18:15-20

Sometimes in the Bible we come across certain passages that are as relevant and practical in our lives today as they were thousands of years ago when they were first written. Today's readings are good examples of such passages. Together they remind us that as faithful Christians it is our responsibility to reach out to our not-so-faithful brothers and sisters and bring them back into the fold. They even go on to recommend practical steps on how to go about doing this.

A young woman, Lydia, strayed from the church as a teenager. After nine years of experimenting with atheism, spiritism, and new age, she found her way back again to the church, by the grace of God. Relating her story, Lydia said that what hurt her the most in all her nine years of spiritual exile is that nobody in the church missed her. Nobody ever phoned or visited to find out what was wrong. "I got the impression that the church does not want me," she said. Of course the church wants her. But what are we doing to help the many men and women in her situation find their way back into full communion with the church? Today's readings invite us to review our I-don't-care attitude towards fallen and lax members of the church, reminding us that, yes, it should be our business to reach out to them.

Why should it be our business whether somebody else decides to serve God or not? As members of the church, we are not just a priestly people who offer sacrifice, we are also a prophetic people, meaning, we are God's spokespersons. Today's first reading is, in fact, a compact job description that God gave to the prophet Ezekiel on what it means to be a prophetic person. To experience the force of the reading we shall read it again, as if God is addressing the same message to us today:

So you, N... (name of member), I have made a sentinel for N... (name of church, parish or community); whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

So now, what part of the "thou shalt not" do we not understand? The clear and practical nature of this message is continued in the gospel, where we are told not just what to do but how to do it.

"If another member of the church sins (against you), go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one" (Matthew 18:15). Some ancient manuscripts do not have the words "against you." So we might be dealing with the case of a fellow believer who offends us personally ("sins against you") or one who sins or errs in a general way as is the case in the first reading. In either case the directive is that those who are spiritually stronger (the offended party) take the initiative to reach out to those who are spiritually weak (the offending and erring member). What is at stake is how to bring an erring member back into the fold, to full reconciliation and communion with God and with us. The motivation for this kind of Christian action is to "regain" your brother or sister, to restore the broken relationship, not primarily to denounce or find out who is right or wrong.

The passage recommends a procedure in three stages: (1) Approach the defaulting brother or sister person-to-person. (2) Go a second time accompanied by one or two trusted companions. (3) Bring the case before the local church. This may sound like a daunting procedure, but the good news is that in nine cases out of ten, we may never need to go beyond the first stage. An erring member approached in a personal and courteous manner is happy to come back without much argument. Let us thank God for the clear and practical message of today's readings. As good hearers of God's word, the next step is for us to now go and put it into practice.

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