Revitalizing Spiritual Works of Mercy

User’s Guide to Sunday, Sept. 6

Interior life
Interior life (photo: Unsplash / Unsplash)

Sunday, Sept. 6, is the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20.

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group who met regularly to pray and to grow in their faith. Because I was speaking about living the mercy of Jesus, I shared how important it is to engage not only in the corporal works of mercy, but also the spiritual works of mercy. Many of them had not even heard of the spiritual works of mercy, and they wanted to know more.

Among the traditional spiritual works of mercy is to “admonish the sinner.” This phrase seems strange to modern ears, but it is precisely what is described in today’s readings. The prophet Ezekiel is entrusted with the task of warning those who have turned from the Lord to return. The Lord points out that a refusal to extend such love would not only harm those left in darkness, but also the one who failed to call them to the light of God’s ways.

Contemporary discomfort with such a practice arises from fear of being judgmental. We should, in fact, avoid judgments about how a person stands before God. Judgment of outward deeds, however, is something normal and necessary. Parents, teachers and anyone who upholds social order see outward actions and try to help people avoid what can harm them or others. Every coach judges whether an athlete has executed a skill correctly or not. When he or she sees a weakness, corrective direction is given to help the athlete flourish.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows how loving it is to correct another person with a view to the person’s good. He gives us a pattern for intervention. If someone harms us, we should talk to the person directly. This takes true charity. Often people talk about the problems they have with others without ever talking to the person involved. This rarely improves situations and often makes matters worse by isolating the struggling person even more. If a person won’t hear a private correction, Jesus recommends bringing others who can assist in persuading the person to seek help for change.

Any of us who have been on the receiving end of correction know that it is difficult to avoid becoming defensive. Today’s Psalm invites us, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8). The challenge is that God works through human instruments. What can make the biggest difference in whether a correction can be received is the attitude and spirit in which it is given.

St. Paul offers the criterion for action. The bottom line is love. He writes: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor” (Romans 13:10). If our motives are self-serving — to embarrass another or to exalt ourselves, to gain some personal advantage or to feed our own pride — then to correct another is not motivated by charity.

If, however, we genuinely want the happiness of our neighbor, we can be an instrument of God’s mercy when we point out a harmful pattern of action. I heard a testimony of a young man whose abuse of alcohol and drugs was harming his life in many ways. A young woman he dated simply asked him, “Are these choices making you really happy?” Her loving interest in him moved him to seek healing of his addictions. Today, their family life together, deeply rooted in Christ, brings him the happiness he really sought. This is mercy in action, and this is the love we are called to receive and to give.

Sister Mary Madeline Todd is a Dominican Sister of the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville.

She received her doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome and currently teaches

religion and philosophy at Mount de Sales Academy in Baltimore.