Among the many problems facing Americans today one is often overlooked: we seem to have forgotten how to forgive one another, how to be reconciled in a way that neither overlooks and gives wrongdoers a free pass for their real and inexcusable wrongs, nor establishes impassable walls between the sinner and the sinned against. People easily apologize, though often enough apologies can seem to be mere words, regrets that have no cost. Or forgiveness can seem a matter of personal piety — “God wants me to forgive you” — and ineffective, given that wrongdoers — mass murderers, perpetrators of racial violence, rapists, the obscenely and irresponsibly wealthy, men who abuse their wives and children — need to be stopped, and merit punishment. In the Church, there are too many stories we’ve all heard about people going to confession and committing the same sins again and again – even predatory priests continuing to prey after every confession. So why forgive? But if there are no rites of forgiveness, we seem likely to fall into greater and greater anger, hardened and unrelenting, lashing out at unforgivable enemies.
There is surely a need for a national conversation on this, but in the short run we Catholics need first to figure this out among ourselves, by reimagining repentance and forgiveness in a way that works for believers, overcomes anger and alienation, and makes God’s forgiving grace visible in the way we nurture and live community.
It is timely then to pay special attention to the Gospel readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 6) and the 24th Sunday (September 13), from Matthew 18. This Sunday (September 6) we have Matthew 18.15-20, which showcases some rules for making the Church a community of reconciliation. Next Sunday (September 13), Matthew 18.21-35 gives us a reflection on the need to keep forgiving, even to impossible lengths, lest we fall into the disaster of self-righteousness of those who forget that they are in need of forgiveness and thus refuse to forgive others.
Both weeks’ readings are preceded by Jesus’ harsh denunciation of those who scandalize the young:
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (18.6-7),
and by the extreme recommendation to cut off the instrument of evil-doing,
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (18.8)
The stakes are most serious indeed, because evil — whatever it may be — is real and dangerous and intolerable. But after this grim opening, we have Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep: no one need be written off as hopeless, by God or the community (18.10-14).
Against the background of these opening insights into sin, scandal, and forgiveness, this Sunday’s Gospel suddenly shifts gears into what the community can and should do in the face of scandalous and unending harm to the community and its members. Matthew 18.15-20 shows us how to deal with someone who sins against a fellow community member, and whose behavior is so intolerable that something must be done.
First, do something yourself. Don’t merely criticize, condemn, backbite, turn a blind eye, or forget the whole thing. Rather, go directly to the offending person and confront them:
"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that person." (18.15)
The first step is for each person to take responsible, speak up and speak out, and personally, privately confront the sinner. This is quiet but hard work, to humanize the offending person enough that you can meet them and speak calmly, trying to change things for the better. It is easier to yell and scream and denounce from a distance, than to look your brother or sister in the eye and ask them to change.
But if this person refuses to repent, try again, still without public uproar. Just bring along just one or two others, to help persuade, and to be able to vouch for what happens:
"But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses." (18.16)
A record has now been kept, so that the offender cannot pretend that they did not know what was wrong, or hope that they can get off with some cheap words of regret that cost nothing and change nothing. Rather, “you heard what we said, we all listened to you, and now we expect you to change.”
Third, if even that does not work, then the whole community has to get involved:
"If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the whole church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (18.17)
At this point forgiveness has its limits: as long as you speak or act in so evil a manner, you do not belong in the community. The stubborn evildoer — whoever it is, whatever they have done, for whatever reason they refuse to repent — can no longer be part of our community: get out, do not come here for worship anymore! Come back (we can hope) when your heart has changed...
What is striking is that the passage is not about God’s forgiveness or condemnation. Jesus is doubling down on the importance of the community’s role: act like the companions of Jesus you claim to be. Indeed, the power that had been given to Peter in Matthew 14 is now given to the whole community. Judgment and reconciliation belong not merely to Peter, but to all the gathered disciples:
"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (18.18)
No passing the buck here. We cannot make the encounter with the evildoer and the reconciliation that should follow into work that someone else is supposed to do. What we find here is a beginning for the Church’s own work of forgiveness — our own work of facing up to the sinner, challenging her or his evil ways, and working for reconciliation, in which the life of the Church finds its foundations. Indeed, the whole passage reminds us of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
"When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (5.23-24)
What Jesus says ideally in the Sermon — reconciliation first, rituals later! — is in Matthew 18 now worked out in real life, as the early Church began to figure out how to balance its rites and pieties with facing up to the evil of its own members in real time. Reconciliation first, rituals later: hard for any religious community to practice!
In the short run, the goal is to stop the sinner from sinning still more, to end the abuse and undercut intolerable evils — and in such a way that the end result is reconciliation, and an opening into a divine-human community. Matthew’s last word, after all, is that it is this reconciled community that finds God present among us once again:
"Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (18.19-20)
God on earth, God here and now, not simply by God’s gracious act, but in the honest and quiet and persistent actions we take, when we face up to evil and still leave room for forgiveness.
How might this reconciliation make a difference in our harsh and unforgiving culture? We have the sacrament of reconciliation, but here we are talking about public sins, cultural evil, and the way the community, not simply individuals, face up to it. Suppose that the Catholic community began to practice more honestly and patiently the ministry of denouncing evil — public evils, public sins — but while still drawing evildoers into moments of repentance and forgiveness. Might not a community that practices confrontation and reconciliation in 2020, as Jesus did 2000 years ago, play a more effective role in a society where honesty, repentance and reconciliation are so rare?
All of this is vague, I admit: Which sins are we talking about? Which sinners?
But Matthew gives no examples, and perhaps the point is to leave it up to the community to decide which public behaviors — words and deeds, silences and omissions — are simply incompatible with the way of Christ. There will of course be disagreement; one person's tradition is another person's target for change. So try this: watch the news, read the papers, scan your websites: what are the worst sins of 2020, how are they afflicting the United States — and most importantly, how do such conflicts taint the Church? How are we going to confront the doers of evil around us and in our midst (sometimes including ourselves), so as to directly engage our sisters and brothers, confront the truth and expose evil, and yet in the end bring about reconciliation?
But there is more to be said. Matthew 18 is not over with. Next week we will hear an appeal that we should forgive 70 times 7 times, and we will contemplate the sad story of a man who cannot forgive, because he cannot realize that he has been forgiven.
(Sometimes these written homilies coincide with my giving the weekly homily during the Mass at our website. You can find the earlier spoken version here.)