Why and how to give fraternal correction

Matthew 18:15-20 (23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Imagine someone is walking in a forest and because of all the trees they cannot see more than a few feet ahead. Now imagine that you are standing on a hill above the trees. From your location you can see the person and where they are walking. What would you do if you the person was walking towards a cliff? Without question, we would call out and warn them of the physical danger. Now, what would you do if you noticed that someone was in moral danger because their sinful actions were hurting themselves and others? Would you warn them through something we call fraternal correction?

The first reading strongly urges us to do just that. We are called to be watchers who warn and correct people when their behavior takes them on the wrong path. Giving fraternal correction is a very difficult, delicate and even terrifying task. If it was something we enjoyed doing, we would probably need to examine our motivations. Being watchers does not mean we become busybodies, looking for every opportunity to scold and correct. The second reading points to the only proper motivation for fraternal correction: love. Because of our love for others we want them to live the best lives possible. In the Gospel, Jesus tackles the question of fraternal correction when giving some very practical advice for dealing with a common situation. What do we do when someone sins against us? If someone says or does something to us which hurts us, how are we to respond? Or, what do we do if someone is involved in some sinful behavior? Jesus gives a four-step plan for how we should respond with love.

Step one: When someone hurts you, go and tell other people about it by gossiping. Just kidding! Significantly, Jesus does not tell us to do this.  When someone sins against us or when we see they are on the wrong path, our natural tendency is to gossip about it. “Can you believe what so-and-so said to me?” “Did you hear that so-and-so is having an affair?” The first thing we are to do is to go in private and speak with that person, explaining in a humble way why we feel their behavior was wrong. In such a conversation our hearts must be open, ready to forgive. Approaching the person directly, unlike gossiping and backbiting, gives the individual the opportunity to change. It is the loving thing to do.

Step two: If the person doesn't listen to you, now go and tell everyone what they have done. Kidding again! Jesus tells us to get one or two others and go correct the person. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it gives us the opportunity to examine our intentions. Has the person who hurt us really done wrong? Perhaps it is just a misunderstanding or a personal vendetta. Secondly, when several people, all motivated by love of the individual, approach them, it can be a very compelling motivation to change.

Step three: If that person still doesn't listen, now is the time to gossip. Now we take to twitter or the local newspaper to rant about the person, right? Nope! Jesus always wants us to act in such a way that the individual is given a chance to change. He tells us at this point to “tell the church”. In a time in which the Church has been plagued by scandal because of the covering-up of sins of its members, I need to be clear that Jesus is not advocating we keep things hidden from the public view. There are serious sins and crimes that must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities. When Jesus instructs us to “tell the church”, He means telling responsible, trusted individuals in authority who could try to convince the person to get on the right path.

Step four: If the person does not listen to the church, treat them as a gentile or tax-collector. This is strong language and Jesus is not kidding. For the Jewish people, gentiles and tax collectors were not part of their community. In serious cases the Church has the power and responsibility to excommunicate someone, cutting them off from the community. This action is not supposed to be a permanent type of shunning. Remember that when it came to sinners and tax collectors, Jesus always acted like the Good Shepherd, actively seeking them out and trying to bring them back into communion. Excommunication is tough love. It is meant to shake the person up and move them to convert.  As well, it show others that continuing obstinately in certain behaviors is not ok. You may have heard in the news about a recent, high profile example. In June, Pope Francis visited southern Italy, the stronghold of organized crime run by the mafia. In this traditionally Catholic area, members of the mafia try to pass themselves off as faithful Catholics in order to retain popular support. On this visit, Pope Francis declared that members of mafia “are not with God, they are excommunicated”. He called on the mafia bosses to repent, warning that “hell … awaits you if you continue down this road”. With this powerful gesture, Pope Francis is showing true love to the members of the mafia by fulfilling his duty of being a watcher.

How do you respond when someone sins against you? What do you do when someone hurts you by what they say or do? For many of us, myself included, it is all too easy to respond with gossiping and backbiting. Today we should remember that the greatest commandment is to love. A way not to show love is not to warn our neighbors when their behavior hurts them or others. Let us be good watchers.