Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
For the first reading this weekend, the Church gives us a passage from the ancient Book of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s name in Hebrew, in effect, was a prayer, “May God make (him) strong.” It was fitting since, as the prophet himself said in complaint, his calling to be a prophet put him at odds with so many people. He needed strength.
For God’s people, times were hard. The Babylonian Empire, then one of the Middle East’s most powerful states, had destroyed much and had killed many. The Babylonians took back to Babylon many survivors of their invasion of the Jewish homeland. In Babylon, these exiles, or their descendants, languished for four generations.
Ezekiel saw this disaster not as a direct punishment from God, hurled down upon the people in a fit of divine revenge, but as the result of the people’s sin.
The prophet was determined in this view. People stray from God. They ignore God. They scorn the Commandments. Inevitably, they pay the price. Lay the blame for misery at their feet.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the source of the second reading. It continues the pattern of many weekends of the summer.
A highly educated, sophisticated and smart Jew, fully versed in the teachings of Judaism, Paul knew the Commandments well. While he saw a special vocation in his outreach to gentiles, he knew that God had acted through Hebrew agents in the past. He believed that the Commandments were from God, given to Moses.
Paul set the Commandments in context. People should obey God because they love all, as God loves all. Love inspires and fulfills the Commandments, giving them focus and purpose. His urging echoed the teaching of Jesus.
For its last reading, the Church this weekend offers a passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus told the disciples to admonish anyone among them who somehow is at fault.
The Lord gives a progression of steps. First, a Christian should call a wayward brother or sister to task. This step failing, the Christian should seek the aid of others in calling the wayward person to task. Finally, this step also failing, the disciple should go to the Church.
If he or she will not reform, the Church should dismiss the wayward.
The reading reminds us of the teachings of the Church regarding how to read the Gospels. We should remember that the Gospels were not written at the time of Jesus, but rather years, indeed generations, later. By the time Matthew was written, the Church had formed. The number of believers had multiplied. They had different backgrounds and experiences. Disputes had entered their midst.
Being a follower of Jesus is a serious matter. It means being part of a body, not just an individual. Christ is in the assembly of disciples. The Church, representing Christ, has the right to judge a member’s behavior, even a member’s sincerity, deciding which behavior actually is consistent with discipleship.
For weeks, we have heard advice about being good disciples. Being faithful disciples means being fully aware that we are human beings, with limited insight and foresight, easily tricked by temptation and prideful. So, we make excuses for ourselves.
Ezekiel well knew this reality. St. Paul knew it.
Humans sin and reap the whirlwind. They get into trouble. Their relationships collapse. Their societies enact bad lives.
God has not put each of us into a small, fragile boat, setting us adrift on a dark and turbulent sea, without an oar or a compass.
We sail on seas often stormy, but we are not adrift. Jesus is our compass, the oar by which we steer the course, and the lighthouse at the edge of the safe shore.
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