Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011, is the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Sept. 8 is the Church’s celebration of the birth of Mary. Our favorite treatment of it is in a poem that Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis introduced us to in college. Here is Birth of Mary by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Oh, what it must have cost the angels then not to suddenly break out singing, as though into tears, because they knew: Tonight the mother is about to be born to the boy, the One now soon to appear.
“Soaring, they held their peace and showed the direction in which, alone, lay the farm of Joachim. Oh, they felt in themselves the awe of pure creation, but none of them dared go down to be with him.”
“A neighbor came full of advice that did not help. And the old man prudently went and restrained the mooings of a dark cow. For there had never been a night like this.”
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Today’s Gospel lesson: admonishing the sinner.
It is often the last thing we want to do, possibly because we know people who do it badly, we do not want to look holier-than-thou, or simply because we are afraid of confrontation.
But to “admonish the sinner” is a serious duty for Catholics. The first reading shows just how serious our obligation is. In it, the Lord tells the “watchman”: “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Not every sin we are aware of is serious enough to warrant those strong words. But some are. The Baltimore Catechism spelled that out this way:
Question: “When are we bound to admonish the sinner?”
Answer: “We are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled: when his fault is a mortal sin; when we have authority or influence over him; and when there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.”
If this sounds daunting, Jesus himself makes this an important obligation — and spells out just how it is to be done in religious matters:
First, approach the person on your own to offer the correction in a charitable way. We must love the sinner and hate the sin, after all.
Second, if a serious sinner for whom you have responsibility won’t listen, you need to find another witness to bolster your case. There is strength in numbers, and that makes it easier.
Only after exhausting those two possibilities do you take the step of turning the matter over to Church authorities.
But how to reprove sinners is only half the battle for a Catholic.
The Catechism lists the seven works of mercy: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. That means you should give the sinner practical advice (i.e. Church teaching and resources), forgive the sinner, and — what seems to be contradictory but is in fact complementary — be patient with the sinner who keeps sinning.
And, last, we need to be willing to accept correction ourselves, even when the correction comes in a distasteful way.
We are not anointed by today’s Gospel as a holy police force. We are anointed “watchmen” who are looking out for others, and we should appreciate when they look out for us, too.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.