This Sunday, Start Correcting Your Friends

This Sunday’s readings, the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A, give an important rebuke to the greatest sin of our day: the loss of the sense of sin.

Last week we heard hard advice: Stop correcting Jesus. This week we hear even harder advice: Start correcting your friends.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone,” Jesus says.

We would rather do anything but that. We would rather signal our disapproval passive-aggressively. If we must confront the sinner, we would prefer to do it by email. But generally, we would be willing to talk to any number of people about the sin we suffered. Anybody except the sinner.

But, “If he listens to you,” says Jesus, “you have won over your brother.”

That is the goal — to gain a brother or sister. Not to revenge a wrong, not to shame the sinner, not to right an injustice, even. This is why it is done in private. The goal is to decrease sin’s grip on the world — and increase Christ’s — by one soul.

This, Jesus tells the apostles, is what “leave the 99 behind and go after the one” really means.

This Gospel passage comes from Matthew, Chapter 18, which paints a detailed picture of Jesus’s hatred for sin.

  • “It would be better … to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” than to cause someone to sin, Jesus says.
  • “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!” he says. It would be better to live life lame and blind than “to be thrown into eternal fire.”
  • He says you should leave the 99 behind to save the one from sin.

Clearly Jesus really, really hates sin. But notice that most of his advice isn’t directed at those guilty of sin. It is directed at those who know those guilty of sin.

Where sin is involved, Jesus agrees with the old adage, “Silence is consent.”

As the prophet Ezekiel makes clear in this Sunday’s first reading, “the wicked shall die for his guilt, but [the Lord] will hold you responsible for his death,” if you never warned him. Jesus says the same thing: Abetting sin will earn you a millstone. If you don’t tear out sin’s sources, you get hellfire. If you stick with the 99 and refuse to rescue the sinner, that sin is on you.

This is why the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are as important as the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy: “Counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and the dead.”

Dorothy Day saw these as the daily stuff of a Christian life. “Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Including admonishing the sinner.

The Baltimore Catechism asks and answers the important question: “When are we bound to admonish the sinner?”

“We are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled:
1. When his fault is a mortal sin;
2. When we have authority or influence over him, and
3. When there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.”

That means that we must admonish our children, we should admonish our friends, and we could admonish anyone who might respect our opinion.

Think of what would change in the world if we followed Jesus’s advice.

In Sunday’s second reading from St. Paul, he says we “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” and stresses several commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet.”

What would happen if more friends and family had lovingly counseled against divorce; if abortion was greeted with truth and love instead of comforting lies; if conspicuous consumption was challenged; or if people’s pornography habits were rebuked instead of encouraged by “friends.”

“Love does no evil to the neighbor,” St. Paul says. If sins were poisonous it would be obvious what we are doing to those whose sins we tolerate. But sins are poisonous, spiritually and eternally.

“If we have no peace,” as Mother Teresa put it, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Next, Jesus adds a safeguard for both the admonisher and the sinner.

“If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses,’” says Jesus, using the Law’s standard.

This is necessary in case the sinner is obstinate and won’t acknowledge his sin — or in case the admonisher is obstinately seeing a sin where there is none. Often what can happen here is that when we talk to a potential witness we hear the advice, “Don’t you think you’re blowing this out of proportion?”

But if there is a sin involved, and it is bad enough that it deserves a rescue mission, even one as awkward as involving other witnesses is worth it. Sin is that bad.

Last, Jesus gives enormous authority to the Church.

If the sinner refuses to listen to your witnesses, says Jesus, “tell the church.”

What does that mean, practically? It means that the Church has a duty to be aware of and act against sin in a community.

In fact, for the Church “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That means the Church has the power to loose people who are bound to sin.

When the Church neglects this duty, it is a serious breech of trust — when Church activities penalize large families who follow Church teaching on contraception, when Catholic organizations through false charity present poor witnesses of life to impressionable children, or when church officials ostracize those whose opinions are morally right but politically incorrect. This is how Christ’s light is snuffed out and structures of sins are built in our own institutions, sucking more and more people into darkness.

Keeping people out of darkness. Leading them to the light. That’s what it is all about.

As Jesus says at the end of the Gospel: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

What Jesus says today clarifies all the old rules.

When Jesus said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye,” he didn’t mean “Don’t take the speck out of your brother’s eye” — he meant to do it better.

When Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” he meant that instead of judging sinners, we should rehabilitate them.

And in Sunday’s Gospel when he says about unrepentant sinners, “Treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile,” he means to treat them as those who need to be won over.

Image: He Wept Over It, by Enrique Simonet, 1892, Wikimedia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.