Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“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. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
“The Lord corrects the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). We all have painful memories of being corrected, where the correction was an expression of superiority or control or anger or impatience or a critical spirit or indeed anything but love. In a word, when there is ego in it, it is guaranteed to harm you in the end, even if it alters your behaviour in the short term. The ego doesn’t know how to love, and therefore it doesn’t know how to correct. If you love someone, the love itself corrects them, quite often without your having to say a word.
We all have memories too of being corrected with love: when someone, out of genuine goodness and concern, took us aside and put a respectful and loving word in our ear. Many years ago a confrère stayed up with me till 4 a.m., to put me on a better path. There was not a hint of ego in it from start to finish, and it was one of the most fruitful experiences of my life. That kind of correction cannot be an over-the-shoulder thing, it can only come from a life of love. If you don’t love people don’t try to correct them, leave it to someone who can do it.
When the situation is a personal matter between the two of you it is more difficult. “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus said. Don’t humiliate the other by hauling out your argument in public. That would introduce all kind of additional complications: the other person is more likely to become defensive in order to save face, and will suspect you of trying to gang-up. A still more cowardly way is to criticise the other in his or her absence. This way the avenues of reconciliation are closed and the ego can have it all its own way. To say nothing at all can be equally bad if the hurt then turns into silent resentment and coldness.
When the offence is against other people, there is a new set of rules – especially if innocent people are being secretly victimised. Here there is no room for secrecy. The Church has learned this sharp lesson in recent years as the many cases of physical and sexual abuse of children come to light. “I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel,” says the first reading of today’s Mass. A sentinel is someone who keeps watch. “If 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.” These words are now ringing in the ears of many whose responsibility was to keep watch in the Church.
Sometimes love does not look like love at all. “Love is stronger than death,” and a doctor who refused to operate when it was necessary would not be acting in the patient’s interest. Psychotherapists talk about “tough love,” and even in one-to-one situations this sometimes becomes necessary. But nonetheless it is love. In the second reading at today’s Mass St Paul wrote, “All the commandments… are summed up in this single commandment: You must love your neighbour as yourself. It is… the answer to every one of the commandments.”