“If your brother sins against you …” (Mt 18:15)
In the Constitutions of the Jesuits (written more than 450 years ago), there is a rule forbidding Jesuits, on account of their vow of poverty, from keeping horses. Nowadays the letter of this rule is rather easy to observe–for obvious reasons. But its spirit–that Jesuits not travel as the rich do– is less easy to observe. It requires a faithful and creative translation of the rule into a new era, a searching examination of how we travel by car and by plane.
Jesus’ procedure for dealing with a wayward “brother,” reads a little like St. Ignatius’ prohibition of horses, like a rule whose particular counsels need to be transposed into contemporary key. I hope to remain faithful to its principles though.
It’s worth noticing that Jesus speaks not of just anyone who sins against us, but of a “brother.” Hence, the first question that today’s Gospel poses is that of identity. Who is my brother in this sense? In the early Church, one’s brother was probably easier to identify: any Christian. Churches were small, persecuted minorities that banded together for mutual support. Baptism and Eucharist were received only at great personal and social cost. Hence, one’s closest personal relationships were usually with fellow Christians. A sharp line divided those who stood inside and outside the brotherhood.
Today’s situation is obviously different. The Church is so large that we do not have a personal relationship with every fellow Christian, or even with every fellow member of the parish. And so we are bound to admonish sinners and to repair damaged relationships according to a sort of sliding scale. The principle seems to be that the closer we are to a person humanly and spiritually, the greater our obligation to admonish and to address wrongs. We are more bound to correct our fellow parishioners than our fellow stamp collectors. More bound to repair relationships among family members than among coworkers.
Once we have determined that the offending party is a “brother” (as opposed to a “Gentile”), however, Jesus provides principles of action that remain demanding in every age. Courage is required to follow them.
- For one thing, Jesus supposes that correcting wrongdoers is normally loving and merciful. Mercy, in other words, is not all indulgence and approval. The Church, following Jesus’ lead here, has long listed “admonishing sinners” among the spiritual works of mercy. There is an art to the how and the when, of course. But Jesus expects that our first instinct will not be to mind our own business and hope for the best, but to help free others from the slavery to sin, to eliminate evil wherever we see it. Even when it makes us uncomfortable or unpopular. We are our brothers’ keepers.
- Second, Jesus places the responsibility to repair a relationship first of all on the injured brother, not on the injuring brother. This is hard. When we are hurt by someone, we naturally tend to shy away for our own protection, to stand on our honor, to insist that they take the initiative. But the Gospel insists that we not be dominated by our hurt feelings, that we strive to see our brother through God’s eyes, that we take God’s interests more to heart than our own. And what interests God above all is the conversion if sinners and the peace of His Church.
- Finally, only after all remedies have been exhausted, and only after we have had our perception confirmed by wise and impartial Christians, does Jesus release us from our obligation toward our “brother.” Only then may we cease and desist with a clear conscience.
Jesus’ way of proceeding is clearly not easy. A question naturally arises: how do we receive the spiritual freedom necessary to forgive from our heart? To persevere in calling our offending brothers to account, especially if they have hurt us personally?
Among the many possible ways, I suggest today just one: frequent confession. It only stands to reason that, when we are trying to “loose” our grievance against our brother on earth—at least to the pointing of desiring his conversion—we do well to have our sins “loosed” as well. For as often as we examine ourselves and confess our sins, we are obliged to view ourselves as the offending party, as the ones justly admonished and mercifully reconciled. And by routinely receiving just and merciful treatment from the Lord in confession, we gradually learn how to act both justly and mercifully toward others.
This is our life’s goal. For though the particular circumstances of the Church may change from age to age, the Lord always desires hearts that are both merciful and just. For such hearts are like His own. And He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.