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"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

23rd SUNDAY (A) September 6, 2020

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20

by Jude Siciliano, OP

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Dear Preachers:

We are in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is doing community building. So, today’s passage must be seen in the light of its larger context. Ever since chapter 14, Jesus has been instructing his disciples. In chapter 18, his teaching emphasizes and focuses on the community of believers, the church.

At the time Matthew wrote, the church was on its own, no longer a part of the Jewish community and so no longer observing the daily norms and customs of that religious tradition. The community needed guidelines for its life together and in chapter 18 Matthew emphasizes the important ones. Faith in Jesus and his teachings are the basis for this new community and believers will have to live in a way that reflects their founder. Since Jesus revealed a forgiving and compassionate God, the life of the community must do the same, if they are to witness to Jesus resurrected and living in their midst. Forgiveness must be the hallmark of the church. (Next week Peter will ask, "...how often must I forgive?" Jesus’ response--- in effect, a limitless number of times.)

When someone offends us we can say, "It’s a big world, I’ll just go my own way and ignore him or her." The early church was a very small community surrounded by non-believers. Members of the assemblies were easily recognizable and so was how they behaved towards one another. It’s something like a family in a small town, the neighbors quickly learn when there is conflict among family members. So too in the tiny early church; people within and outside the community would know of divisions among the believers. Conflicting members could not go their own way, the whole community would know and suffer the consequences of their behavior. The injuries had to be dealt with through forgiveness and, if it that were done, all would benefit. Outsiders would also notice the community’s behavior and be drawn to it. Today our larger communities might make it possible for conflict to continue, or be ignored, without too much fuss. But an unseen wound is a wound nevertheless and the unity and life of the believers are affected by offenses done by members against one another.

The teaching in today’s gospel sets out a rather elaborate and specific process for how forgiveness and reconciliation are to happen. At first just two people are involved, "If your brother [or sisters] sins against you go and tell...." Notice that the one sinned against must attempt a personal exchange with the offending party. At this stage of the process the privacy of the two is being respected. The directions don’t include explicit formulas or directions how the conversation is to go. It is hoped the parties can converse reasonably that members can be trusted to know how to behave and what to say. But life doesn’t always work out according to ideals.

If the first step fails, the conversation is to include just one or two more persons. We might jump ahead at this point to the closing verse of today’s passage. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." We most commonly apply this passage to when two or more believers pray together – Jesus will be in their midst. True enough. But back to the context. The verse is in the setting of reconciliation in the community; when "two or three" come together to settle an offense against a member. When a believing community works to settle disputes, Christ is in our midst working to achieve the same goal. That is what makes this teaching more than an "ideal" and keeps it from being dismissed as not practical in "the real world."

Or, put it another way. Where shall we find the true presence of Christ? In today’s example, he is in our midst when we work together to right wrongs. Forgiveness and justice should characterize the community; if it does, others will recognize something unique about the church and might even recognize Christ alive and active in our midst doing what isn’t "do-able" without him. We believe he is truly with us at this eucharistic celebration. We reflect on divisions in our local and universal church, as well as between churches, resulting from offenses and misunderstandings done over the centuries. We invite Christ to be with us as we consciously and deliberately set about righting both large and small wrongs.

Jesus’ instructions continue. If the offender is hardened and refuses to acknowledge the wrong the process moves to another level. "If he/she refuses to listen to them, tell the church." Here Jesus gives the whole community the power to "bind and loosen"; the power to welcome back a repentant member, but also to discipline an unrepentant offender. The latter is an unfortunate but, it seems, necessary move. Actually, it isn’t so much that the church excludes someone from the community, but that the person guilty of sin against a member has turned his/ her back on the community. Since they are obstinate in their sin, they have sentenced themselves to exclusion. If they won’t mend the breech they have caused, the community is forced to state the obvious. The offender must be treated as "a Gentile or a tax collector" – a catch-all phrase used at that time by the Jewish community to mean anyone considered unclean and outside the faith. But remember that Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors into his company and offered them God’s forgiveness and acceptance. I think that leaves his comment ambiguous.

We sense from this passage and all of chapter 18, that unity and faithful adherence to Jesus’ teachings are important values for Matthew. Christians are not to live as individuals, but as members of a witnessing and supportive community. When a member has been "sinned" against, others are there for support and to see that rights are wronged.

But what’s the spirit of today’s gospel? Is Jesus just talking about individual offenses and sins? Suppose a race is sinned against, what are we to do? Suppose the poor on the other side of town are being ignored or deprived of their needs and rights? Suppose a group in our parish is treated as second class members just because they are new arrivals? Suppose women’s voices are ignored? Or, the elderly patronized? Suppose young people never hear their lives or issues mentioned in the preaching and public worship? Well...you get the idea.

Fifteen years ago there was an editorial in the New York Times that I think reflects the surprising nature of today’s gospel message. The title suggests the editorial writer might have seen more than the surface of things. I will quote it in full below for your prayer and reflection.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/090720.cfm

QUOTABLE

A MOMENT OF GRACE

In an age whose crabbed sense of justice finds expression in dismal phrases like "zero tolerance" and "three strikes and you’re out," the events in a Long Island courtroom on Monday came as an undeserved gift, something startling and luminous.

It happened when Ryan Cushing, a 19-year-old charged with assault for tossing a turkey through a car windshield last fall, approached the drive he nearly killed, Victoria Ruvolo. Ms. Ruvolo, 44, suffered severe injuries and needed many hours of surgery to rebuild her shattered facial bones.

When Mr. Cushing left the courtroom after pleading guilty, he came face to face with his victim for the first time. He said he was sorry and begged her to forgive him.

She did. She cradled his head as he sobbed. She stoked his face and patted his back, "It’s O.K.; it’s O.K.," she said. "I just want you to make your life the best it can be."

Mr. Cushing was one of six teenagers out for a night of joy riding and crime, which often happens when childish aggression and stupidity merge with the ability to drive and steal credit cards. The five others have pleaded guilty to various acts like forgery and larceny, but Mr. Cushing, who threw the turkey, could have faced 25 years in prison. At Ms. Ruvolo’s insistence, prosecutors granted him a plea bargain instead: six months in jail and five years’ probation.

The prosecutor, Thomas Spota, had been ready to seek harsh punishment for a crime he rightly denounced as heedless and brutal. "This is not an act of mere stupidity," Mr. Spota said. "They’re not 9-or-7-year-old children.

That is true. But Ms. Ruvolo’s resolute compassion, coming seemingly out of nowhere, disarmed Mr. Spota and led to a far more satisfying result.

Many have assumed that Ms. Ruvolo’s motivation is religious. But while we can estimate the size of her heart, we can’t peer into it. Her impulse may have been entirely secular.

Court testimony by crime victims is often pitched as a sort of retributive therapy, a way for angry, injured people to force criminals to confront their shame. But while some convicts grovel, others smirk. Many are impassive. It’s hard to imagine that those hurt by crime reliably find healing in the courtroom. Given the opportunity for retribution, Ms. Ruvolo gave and got something better: the dissipation of anger and the restoration of hope, in a gesture as cleansing as the tears washing down her damage face, and the faced of the foolish, miserable boy whose life she single-handedly restored.

----NY Times, Wednesday, August 17, 2005, page A18.

JUSTICE BULLETIN BOARD

"Love is the fulfillment of the Law."

Romans 13:10

To love, can it be that simple to solve the problems of the world? Today’s readings show us that we are responsible for and to one another, in all our actions. In St. John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, "Reconciliation and Penance," he writes: "Every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. . .every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin" (16). The personal choices we make have social consequences. Visualize dropping the proverbial pebble in a pool of water. The resulting ripples are the after-effects of our action. During the Season of Creation, we unite as one family in Christ, celebrating the bonds we share with each other and with "every living creature on Earth" (Genesis 9:10). Let us examine how a selfish action reverberates and becomes a social sin.

A developer comes on a piece of property and, in order to make the greatest financial profit, he clear cuts the entire land of its forest.

Now, let’s take the viewpoint of the tree in this Aesop’s Fable, "The Plane Tree": "Two travelers, walking in the hot sun, sought the shade of a large tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a plane tree. ‘How useless is the Plane!’ said one of them, ‘it bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.’ The plane tree interrupted him with quiet dignity, ‘Shame on you, ungrateful creatures. You come and take shelter under me from the scorching sun, and then, in the very act of enjoying the cool shade of my foliage, you call me good for nothing!’"

The developer is the two travelers in that he sees no worth to the trees on his property. By clear-cutting he has increased the heat of the earth and jeopardized life for all by contributing to the warming of the planet.

Climate change is a result of the intersection of greed, inequality and destruction of God’s Earth. The 2020 theme of Jubilee for the Earth is chosen for this year’s Season of Creation as it reflects those three interlocking themes. Jubilee is a time to renounce overconsumption and economic systems based on constant economic growth at the cost of the Earth and those who are poor. As we live into a post-COVID-19 world, can we imagine a new, just, sustainable, and more loving way of living?

Barbara Molinari Quinby, MPS, Director

Office of Human Life, Dignity, and Justice Ministries

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, NC

FAITH BOOK

Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.

From today’s Gospel reading:

Jesus said to his disciples, "If your sister or brother sins against you, go and tell them their fault between you and them alone. If they listen to you, you have won over your brother or sister.

Reflection:

As Jesus’ disciples we are to be a people who reflect his presence in our midst.

Since forgiveness is such a rare commodity among individuals, communities, religions, tribes, races and nations, a community that is characterized by forgiveness would certainly be a way of announcing Jesus Christ to the world. If forgiveness were the hallmark of our Christian community, we would be what Jesus hoped for us to be – "a city built on a hilltop," a " light to the nations."

So, we ask ourselves:

  • What effect has forgiveness had on my own life?
  • What person or institution am I called to forgive?
  • Let me begin the forgiveness process by praying for the one(s) who have offended me.

POSTCARDS TO DEATH ROW INMATES

"One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out."

---Pope Francis

This is a particularly vulnerable time for state and federal prisoners. Conditions, even without the pandemic, are awful in our prisons. Imagine what it is like now with the virus spreading through the close and unhealthy prison settings. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of the inmates listed below to let them know we have not forgotten them. If the inmate responds you might consider becoming pen pals.

Please write to:

  • Jeremy D. Murrell #0940436 (On death row since 2/17/2006)
  • Darerell W. Maness #0831753 (4/4/2006)
  • Ryan G. Garcell #0775602 (4/4/2006)

----Central Prison, 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4285

For more information on the Catholic position on the death penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network: http://catholicsmobilizing.org/resources/cacp/

On this page you can sign "The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty." Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the Death Penalty: http://www.pfadp.org/

DONATIONS

"First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at jboll@opsouth.org.

If you would like to support this ministry, please send tax deductible contributions to fr. Jude Siciliano, O.P.

St. Albert Priory, 3150 Vince Hagan Drive, Irving, Texas 75062-4736

Make checks payable to: Dominican Friars. Or, go to our webpage to make an online donation: https://www.PreacherExchange.com/donations.htm

ANNOUNCEMENTS

1. We have compiled Four CDS for sale:

  • Individual CDs for each Liturgical Year, A, B or C
  • One combined CD for "Liturgical Years A, B and C."

If you are a preacher, lead a Lectionary-based scripture group, or are a member of a liturgical team, these CDs will be helpful in your preparation process. Individual worshipers report they also use these reflections as they prepare for Sunday liturgy.

You can order the CDs by going to our webpage: www.PreacherExchange.com and clicking on the "First Impressions" CD link on the left.

2. "Homilías Domincales" —These Spanish reflections on the Sunday and daily scriptures are written by Dominican sisters and friars. If you or a friend would like to receive these reflections drop a note to fr. John Boll, O.P. at Jboll@opsouth.org.

3. Our webpage: www.PreacherExchange.com - Where you will find "Preachers’ Exchange," which includes "First Impressions" and "Homilías Dominicales," as well as articles, book reviews, daily homilies and other material pertinent to preaching.

4. "First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at the above email address.


Thank you and blessings on your preaching,

fr. Jude Siciliano, O.P.

Jude Siciliano, OP - Click to send email.

St. Albert the Great Priory of Texas

3150 Vince Hagan Drive

Irving, Texas 75062-4736

frjude@judeop.org

972-438-1626


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