23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Prince of Peace Parish, Old Forge
September 10, 2023
Today’s gospel passage is taken from a portion of St. Matthew’s gospel that includes a collection of Jesus’ sayings on the practical challenges facing the Christian community not only not only of his day and age but also of ours: the challenges that emerge from status-seeking, scandal, division and conflict among members of the faithful.
Admittedly, we’re rarely comfortable acknowledging that things aren’t how they should be in our relationships with family members or fellow parishioners. We prefer to convince ourselves and others that things are fine – ignore the challenges – and move on with life. To do otherwise is usually a bit too demanding upon ourselves and our own responsibility for divisions among us. And we’re certainly not comfortable with Jesus’ plan for achieving reconciliation among divided members of our parishes. It’s way too complicated and might very well impact us in an uncomfortable manner.
The point, however, of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel is less about a complicated process of mediation and far more of a challenge to us all that we should never become tolerant of a breach between ourselves and another member of the Christian community – whether that member is a part of our parish, our neighborhood or even our family.
Jesus pleads with us not to allow our judgments and disappointments to isolate us from others – but rather to seek honesty and sincerity, to put aside self-interest, anger and wounded pride, and to take the first step in healing the rifts that destroy the sense of love that should bind family and friends, church and community.
And why is it so vital – from Jesus’ perspective – that we heal our relationships? … Because it’s in our relationships – tangible, flesh and blood relationships – that we experience God and live out our faith!
Years ago when I served on the faculty of our college seminary before I was appointed as bishop, I would often challenge our seminarians as they talked about their desire to deepen their relationship with God. “So you want to experience God more deeply. Good. Then tell me what you’re doing to encounter God.” They would often respond by sharing with me their participation in the sacraments – particularly Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist. And they would also describe their daily commitment to prayer and reflection and meditation on the Word of God in the Scripture.
And when they were done, I would ask them, “What about your relationships with one another in the seminary? Are you getting along with your fellow seminarians? How about your family – your parents and your brothers and sisters? … If you want to encounter God, look at the lives that God has placed in your own! In your relationships and in your ability to live in peace with one another and to serve one another, you will encounter God.”
Brothers and sisters, our relationships one with another are as good a place as it gets for those of us who seek to encounter God in our lives! … Recall these words from Saint Matthew proclaimed just a moment ago, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Now admittedly, when Jesus speaks of the need to mend broken relationships in today’s gospel, he seems to get a little technical. The series of steps to be taken for healing such relationships probably came from observations of the early Church and not Jesus himself.
Regardless, for me, the most encouraging – even if the most challenging of steps at reconciliation that Jesus establishes – is when he states that when all is said and done and your brother still won’t change his ways, “then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
And how did Jesus treat the Gentile or tax collector? He treated them just like he treated all those who were outcast and relegated to the margins of society – with love and respect – not because they were righteous but because they were made in the image and likeness of God and thus deserving of being treated with respect and dignity.
At the heart of Jesus’ words to us in today’s gospel is the challenge that he gives to all of us to take upon ourselves the work of tending to our relationships – the hard work of reconciliation – a work that enables all of us to see and respond best to the presence of Jesus and the face of God that we encounter in every life that weaves its way into our own.
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