23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

Let us pray from Psalm 95…

If today we hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Come, let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

Let us joyfully sing psalms to him.

If today we hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Come, let us bow down in worship,

Let us kneel before the Lord who made us.

For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds,

The flock he guides.

If today we hear His voice, may we harden not our hearts.

1st Reading: Ezekiel 33: 7-9

Ezekiel understood his role as prophet to be that of watchman who discerns the moral pulse of the culture, and who also watches for and announces to the people any impending disasters.  (Birmingham, W&W Workbook for Year A, 499)  You can hear the weight of responsibility he feels this role, and it challenges us to speak out against what we see is wrong in the world too.  We all do this in our own way.  How have you had to do it in your life?

During the day, some people who lived in a fortified city worked outside the city gates.  So that they could go about their work without worry, a guard stood on the city wall scanning the horizon for any sign of an approaching enemy.  When the watchman spied hostile forces, he gave a signal to the townspeople in the fields.  It was their responsibility to leave their work to return to safety behind the city walls.  Both the watchman and the people had clear responsibilities, (Vawter&Hoppe, Ezekiel:  A New Heart, 148).  Do you have someone that watches over you?  Are you a watchman?

2nd Reading: Romans 13: 8-10

In this pericope, Paul gives us the “how” in handling this social responsibility:  with love. 

Indeed, Paul’s words from 1 Corinthian 13 are very close.  It also aligns well with Jesus’ preaching as we find it in the synoptic gospels, especially passages like Luke 10: 25+ — here Jesus lists love as the essence of the law and tells the story of the Good Samaritan. These words of Paul predate the gospels, of course. His experience of the Risen Lord taught him the same truth that we find later recorded by others in the gospels — a great testimony to the ‘unity’ of mind and heart that comes from knowing Jesus. (M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 500)

The Gospel — Matthew 18: 15-20

Here we see Matthew applying Jesus’ wisdom and advice to his own community and its needs. He is trying to fashion his ‘church’ on the teaching of Jesus.  (Birmingham, 501)

Also remember, Matthew’s community was a highly Jewish/Christian group.  Eduard Schweizer asks us to notice these things in connection with this gospel: In Judaism, at least 10 males must be present for corporate worship. For the disciples of Jesus such rules are no longer needed: even 2 who pray together are heard.  Also, the authority of the community is the authority they gain through prayer. It is assumed, of course, that the community prays according to God’s will as Jesus taught his disciples to do in the Lord’s Prayer (See Mt. 6: 9-13.)  The promise of Jesus’ presence speaks with a strong ‘taste’ of resurrection faith. When we come together in Jesus’ name we come together under Jesus authority and teaching.  It is this presence of love that confers the presence and power of Christ on the community.  Prayer and love are central: “the presence of the God who is unknown has been replaced by the presence of the man who is known, who can be called by name, the presence of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus now takes the place of the Law, as described by this Jewish saying: “When two men sit together and words of the Law are between them, then the presence of God is dwelling among them.”    (The Good News According to Matthew, 374-375)

From John Kavanaugh, S.J., “The Word Embodied,” http://liturgy.slu.edu:

Community life is the great testing ground of faith. St. Teresa of Avila thought that relationships in community were often a greater indication of one’s relationship to God than any heights of mystical prayer. Too often, though, we let problems fester in stead of being confronted and healed. The misdeeds of friends and family are discussed with everyone but the accused. We would too often rather ignore than struggle with conversion. Encountering truth with another person can be daunting – but it can also be the beginning of new life.

William Barclay has these comments: He says that this passage is one of the most difficult passages in Matthew’s entire gospel. It just does not ‘ring true’: it does not sound like Jesus. In fact, it sounds much more like a ‘church committee.’ Certainly, in its present form Jesus could not have told his disciples to take things to the Church for it did not exist yet! Still, it seems equally certain that it does in some way go back to a ‘Jesus teaching.’ If we press behind the text itself, we can find perhaps advice from Jesus like this: If someone does something wrong and harmful, spare no effort to help the sinner to see what is wrong and try to correct it. We must talk lovingly and directly to the one who has wronged us or others. Direct, personal confrontation can be healing and it needs to be private, at least at the beginning. If this does not produce healing and reconciliation, then bring one or two wise, caring people with you. Their objective wisdom may help to bring about good. If that does not work, call on your Christian community with the hope that with prayer, love and fellowship the personal relationship may be righted.

But then we come to the most difficult part. We are told if the person will not repent we are to treat that one like a Gentile or tax-collector. But Jesus never set limits to forgiveness. In fact in the very next passage in Matthew’s gospel (18: 21-35) Peter is told that we must forgive the one who wrongs us as often as necessary: 7 x 70! And, when Jesus ‘deals with’ tax-collectors or Gentiles in the gospels he does so with sympathy, gentleness, and an appreciation of their good qualities. In fact, Matthew for whom this very gospel is named was a tax-collector. Jesus found no one hopeless; neither must we. Maybe Jesus is telling us that even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, we may still win him over in the end as He did.

Barclay has more insights concerning the ending of this passage that is on prayer. Surely, we can not take literally the idea that if we but have two people agree on something God will have to give it. Nothing but harm can result when we teach people to expect what does not happen. So what is meant?

1st – prayer must never be selfish. We are not to pray only for our own needs; we need to pray as a part of a fellowship open to what is needed around us.

2nd – when prayer is unselfish, God’s answers with what is best for real growth, real goodness.

Furthermore, Jesus is with us whenever faithful hearts meet. He is not a slave to numbers. No matter how few may gather, his loving and powerful presence is there. (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, p. 187-192)

Kenneth Leech says, “Prayer needs always to be seen within this social context, for there is no such thing as private prayer.  The word private comes from the Latin privatio, which means robbery.  To the Christian, nothing is private, least of all prayer.  God is not private but personal and social, Being in relationship.”  Margaret Guenther adds, “After all, when in the Lord’s Prayer we address God as OUR Father, we are acknowledging that there are other children in the family.”  From The Tree of Life by Steven Chase.

Let us pray:

Lord,

We need you.

We need you to help us be watchful people.

Not to snuff out the sin in the world, not to be accusers-

But to be faithful to what You teach us.

We need each other to do this.  Help us to see that too.

When we are loving to one another, we spread Your love.

And You are in our midst.

Thank you Lord.  AMEN

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