23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Who Am I to Judge?
That seems to be the theme of our civilization today. Who am I to judge?
The media and a lot of people have taken part of a quote from Pope Francis and have turned it into an excuse for tolerating any type of behavior. Whatever the crisis of the day is, whatever moral norms are being turned upside down, it doesn’t matter, because we are not to judge, are we? It’s a wonderful, all-encompassing excuse for not taking any responsibility for our actions or the actions of other people. It’s not my fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not anyone’s fault. We must be open and welcome and accept, even celebrate, any behavior in anyone, because to do otherwise is to be judgmental, and that’s bad.
It’s not only bad, it’s really hard to do sometimes, because if we are seen as judgmental we risk a lot. We risk ridicule, usually on social media, loss of friends, our jobs, and sometimes outright violence. Nobody wants to be seen as judgmental. As long as what you do doesn’t infringe on my rights, go ahead. It doesn’t affect me.
But is that true? Am I really my brother’s keeper?
What do we hear in today’s readings? The people of the prophet Ezekial’s time believed that the consequences of offending God was often death, physical death. They didn’t have the same concept of the afterlife that we do. Therefore, the worst that could happen to someone was for them to die. We have a similar understanding of the consequences of sin, however, ours is based upon our understanding of eternal life. If we live a life of sin without repenting, and die in that state, then we will suffer not only physical death but spiritual death as well, separated from God forever.
So, as St. Paul says, the wages of sin is death. The stakes are really high. The Lord tells Ezekial that it is his responsibility as a prophet to warn people about those consequences, and try to turn them away from their sin, so they will not die. If he does not, then not only will the person die anyway, but Ezekial will be held responsible. That’s a high price to pay for not being judgmental.
And Jesus builds upon this understanding of responsibility in the gospel. He lays out a detailed process for dealing with people who sin. If someone does something wrong that you are personally aware of, you have a responsibility to talk to them about it. Sometimes people are unaware that they have hurt you or that what they did was wrong. A young person asked me once if something is a sin if she didn’t think it was a sin. At first I thought that yes, there are some actions that are always sinful, in and of themselves. Then after a while I came to the conclusion that that may be so, but there’s a difference between thinking something is a sin and knowing it is a sin, and doing it anyway. I think we have raised entire generations that have no awareness that some things they think are natural and good are actually wrong. It is our responsibility to inform them of reality, as we have been taught by Jesus and his church. And, as Jesus tells us today, not just the responsibility but the authority to do so.
But what if they don’t listen, or outright reject our message? Jesus says we are to bring in backup. Take a couple of witnesses with us and try again. In Jewish law, all it took to establish a case was to have the collaborating testimony of two or three witnesses. If even that fails, take it to the church. To the church? What have they got to do with it?
Jesus clearly states here that the church has both the responsibility and the authority to judge questions of faith and morals. When we sin, it affects not only our relationship with God and with those we hurt, it affects everyone. It affects the church, the people of God. It affects the entire world. Wow, when I steal that candy bar from the 7 Eleven it hurts people in China? In a way, yes. Sin, especially unrepentant and unforgiven sin, does hurt everyone. Like George Lucas said, there’s a disturbance in the force. If only we could feel something when somebody else sinned, maybe we would be more aware of the seriousness of sin.
There are sins that individuals do not commit that affect their lives profoundly. When someone hurts us, it obviously affects us personally. But how can what one person does to another that we are not even aware of affect us personally? Well, how many of you own slaves? How many of you are sexual offenders? None of us own slaves, but we are all affected by the sin of slavery in this country that was ended over 150 years ago. Every day we see the effects of racism, and it hurts us all and paints entire populations with the same brush, because of the actions of others. And as Catholics, we are all affected by the actions of a few clergy, aren’t we, even though we would never dream of acting that way ourselves.
And if we are all affected by the sins of others, we are also responsible for trying to correct and forgive those sins.
When he told his apostles, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” he gave them the authority to judge actions and establish laws that apply here on earth that are backed by the authority of God himself.
Finally, Jesus proclaims judgment on the unrepentant sinner. Treat them as you would treat a gentile or tax collector. And we know how the Jews treated those folks. They had no contact with gentiles and they ostracized and abused tax collectors. That’s pretty harsh, and doesn’t really paint a picture of a merciful Jesus.
But it’s not judgmental to give someone a chance to repent. Several chances, in fact. And how did Jesus treat tax collectors? He ate with them. One of them was actually an apostle. The door was always open, but Jesus never pulled any punches with sinners. He always called them to repentance and always forgave and welcomed them back into relationship with him.
That’s what people do when they love each other. Jesus wasn’t laying out a legalistic process for judging sinners. He was giving them a lot of chances. He was telling us to be persistent and gentle in calling people back into relationship. And most of all, he is telling us to try, at least try. I think that many of us don’t even take that first step when someone hurts us. We don’t have the courage to tell the person how we feel and reach out to them. Most of us would just let it go and write them off.
We must always treat sinners with compassion, because we are all sinners who need and want compassion ourselves. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we treat them as we want to be treated, and nobody wants to feel condemned and outcast. We correct our children all the time when they do something wrong. We also punish them when necessary. We do that out of love for them because we do not want them to suffer any long term harmful consequences. That is not being judgmental, that is being responsible parents.
We are our brother’s keeper. We are all responsible for one another. Remember that admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual works of mercy, along with instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and bearing patiently those who wrong us.
We are all just beggars looking to be fed. And so we must be there for one another. Just as we provide for the physical needs of people we must also look out for one another’s spiritual needs. We do it out of love. We do it because we want to be loved. The most loving thing you can do for someone is help them get to heaven, to be with the God who created them. To correct someone who sins is to show them the ultimate compassion.
It is to lead them to the thing that will bring them the greatest happiness.
Happiness does not come from doing whatever we want to do. Happiness comes from living as we were created to live, according to the commandments of the Lord. Those commandments are not just a set of arbitrary or oppressive rules. God set them up for us to guide us to him. Jesus said that we are his friends if we keep his commandments. He then gave us the responsibility and authority to help one another keep them.
That’s not being judgmental. Only God will judge us. One day each and every one of us will stand before the Lord, alone, and there will be judgment. That is the moment when we will feel the effects of the gentle corrections we had received during our lives here on Earth. How we reacted to those corrections will make all the difference. At that moment we will also experience the consequences of how we responded to those times we were called to be loving to our neighbor. And that includes when we were called to show mercy to the sinner.
For we will be shown mercy to the extent that we show mercy.