Jesus Teaches Us Christian Correction Is a Serious Obligation
User’s Guide to Sunday, Sept. 10
We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Today’s readings are an important reminder of our obligation to correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in three steps.
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him.’” Here is brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. One generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more obliged to correct those who are younger than those who are older. Parents are duty-bound to correct their children, but children are less obligated to correct their parents.
The general rule, however, remains: All other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction.
Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.” The first reading today also says, “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning ... in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but I will hold you responsible (Ezekiel 3:17).
“If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” The point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority.
The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones.
1. Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. Jesus is clear: Speak to the sinner himself, first.
2. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. This sort of option may seem difficult today in our less-family-based settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members or friends who the person trusts.
3. If he or she refuses to listen, tell the Church. For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues and disrespect for parents.
4. If he or she refuses to listen even to the Church ... we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community” — unless and until he repents. St. Paul adds, “Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Some today object to the use of excommunication and say that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. The purpose of excommunication is twofold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.
Jesus teaches us to correct one another. It is a serious obligation.