Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Love and do as you will.” St Augustine

“Owe nothing to others except to love them…The law code…finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.” Romans 13, 8-10

“If your brother who has hurt you won’t listen to the community, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” Matthew 18, 15-20

Almost a life-time ago in 1954, the French priest and theologian, Michel Quoist published a book of prayers and poems, entitled Prayers of Life. It was the first of thirteen books he wrote during his life as a youth chaplain and a parish pastor. Prayers of Life was not translated into English until 1963. One of the pieces Quoist included resonates with the message of this Sunday’s readings. I quote it at length:
“Lord, why did you tell me to love all men (sic), my brothers? I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened…
 Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled. It was well furnished, and I felt cosy. I was alone, I was at peace. Sheltered from the wind, the rain, the mud. I would have stayed unsullied in my ivory tower. 
But, Lord, you have discovered a breach in my defences, You have forced me to open my door. Like a squall of rain in the face, the cry of humankind has awakened me; Like a gale of wind a friendship has shaken me; As a ray of light slips in unnoticed, your grace has stirred me… and, rashly enough, I left my door ajar. 
Now, Lord, I am lost! Outside, people were lying in wait for me. I did not know they were so near; in this house, in this street, in this office; my neighbour, my colleague, my friend. As soon as I started to open the door, I saw them, with outstretched hands, burning eyes, longing hearts, like beggars on church steps.
The first ones came in, Lord. There was after all some space in my heart. I welcomed them. I would have cared for them and fondled them, my very own little lambs, my little flock. You would have been pleased, Lord, I would have served and honoured you in a proper, respectable way. Till then, it was sensible.
 But the next ones, Lord, the others, I had not seen them; they were hidden behind the first ones. There were more of them, they were wretched; they over-powered me without warning.
 We had to crowd in, I had to find room for them. Now they have come from all over, in successive waves, pushing one another, jostling one another. They have come from all over town, from all parts of the country, of the world; numberless, inexhaustible. 
They don’t come alone any longer but in groups, bound one to another. They come bending under heavy loads; loads of injustice, of resentment and hate, of suffering and sin… 
They drag the world behind them, with everything rusted, twisted, or badly adjusted. Lord, they hurt me! They are in the way, they are everywhere. They are too hungry, they are consuming me! I can’t do anything anymore; as they come in, they push the door, and the door opens wider… 
Lord! My door is wide open! I can’t stand it anymore! It’s too much! It’s no kind of life! What about my job? My family? My peace? My liberty? And me?
 Lord, I have lost everything, I don’t belong to myself any longer. There’s no more room for me at home.  
Don’t worry, God says, you have gained all. While people came to you, I, your Father, I, your God, slipped in among them. (Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, Sheed & Ward, 1963)

While today’s gospel-reading begins with the issue of how we are to deal with a family, community or parish member who has hurt another member, we have to read it in the context of the parable of the lost sheep which immediately precedes our gospel-reading. The bottom line is that we have to end up reconciling with the offender and restoring her or him to the community. As Michel Quoist observed, there is a real cost to loving everyone as my brothers and sisters. I have to accept them, warts and all, be open to accepting them in the messiness of their lives, be ready to reconcile with them and forgive them for the hurt they cause. In Jesus’ view, there is simply no room for criticising them or whinging to others about them. We have to talk directly to them and hold out to them the hand of reconciliation and forgiveness.

One of the characteristics of being a disciple of Jesus is a willingness to accept the prophetic dimension of that role. After reading today’s first reading from Ezekiel, I have to admit to having second thoughts about taking on the responsibility of being a prophet. The consequences are that I have to be prepared to speak out when I see injustice and wrong-doing, or take responsibility for the resulting damage and hurt.

The second reading from Romans goes even further by stating that the only way for all of us to be in tune with God is to treat others, everyone we encounter or only hear about, with unstinting love. The cost is surrendering all we have and are, holding nothing back. But it brings us into the company of God, who slips in, almost unnoticed, with all those demanding our attention, even those who have caused us harm and grief and disappointment.

As the theologian Elizabeth Johnson observes: “Forgiveness, Jesus tells us, is not a quantifiable commodity. It is a qualitatively different way of life, drawn from the very being of God whose nature is to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and whose ultimate goal is always reconciliation and restoration of community”.

Quite a challenge! Am I up to it?