23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – September 6, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)Gospel Acclamation for today
(1) The Need for Reconciliation
In Matthew’s Gospel there are five main discourses. And the fourth one is here in chapter 18 (which we read this week and next week). This discourse is usually referred to as the discourse on the Church (ekklesia); the discourse on the community that Jesus gathers. And just like anytime you get a group of people together for more than thirty seconds, it is a safe be that there is going to be conflict and sin within the group.
Next week Jesus focuses on forgiveness. But this week, the focus is placed on the issue of reconciliation. “If your brother sins against you.” We’re talking about fellow Christians. “If a fellow disciple, if a fellow Christian sins against you.”
What do we usually do? When someone sins against us, when someone hurts us, when someone betrays us, lies to us, uses us—when someone sins against us, what do we usually do? We get angry: and that’s ok, because anger is a feeling you have that some injustice has been done to us or someone else—and sin is injustice. But what do we do with that anger? Well, usually we let it stew, we mull over all of the ways that person has hurt us, we think of all the times they have hurt us, and we start to hold on to those. Or we can easily lash out at the person—eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth—we get defensive and decide to sin right back at them.
Another thing we easily fall into is lying to ourselves and lying to others. Have you ever heard the line, “Forgive and forget?” I think that is one of the most dangerous lines we can tell someone else or tell ourselves. We tell the person, “I forgive you and I forget what you did, I don’t hold it against you.” And that’s nice, but it’s not true! We all know that. We are lying to them, and worse, we’re lying to ourselves. Because we don’t just forget. There have been incredible scientific studies that show that physiologically we don’t forget the sin or the hurt they caused; our bodies do not forget. That’s why you feel sick around someone that has really hurt you, you can’t stand to be around them. It’s not because you haven’t forgiven them, but it’s because “it is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense” (Catechism 2843).
(2) Forgiveness ≠ Reconciliation
And so this is what Jesus is driving at in our Gospel today. Among Christians, among family members, among friends—when there is just blanket, unconditioned, unacknowledged “forgiveness” for sins; when you “forgive” someone who isn’t sorry, who doesn’t realize the hurt they have done; when you decide to just burry the hurt in your heart and not address it—this doesn’t restore peace and unity to the community or to your family or to your friendships and definitely not to you.
The image I use is the broken window. Pretend some kid throws a ball through a window, and the homeowner watches him do it. Window shatters. The homeowner can forgive the kid, but that doesn’t fix the window. Reconciliation is the window getting fixed—reconciliation is making things right again, restoring the harmony that used to exist.
But also, think of it this way. Imagine the kid throws the ball through the window, and the homeowner watches him do it. Window shatters. But then, imagine that the kid denies it. The kid refuses to own up to what he did, and refuses to make things right. What is going to happen? Well, the homeowner is going to call the neighbor over, and he’s going to say, “Yeah, I watched you do it, kid. You need to make things right.” If the kid still doesn’t listen, they’re going to call the cops. And through it all, the homeowner can be the most kind, compassionate, and forgiving person in the world! But the window is still broken.And great harm can come when the window isn’t fixed, when there is not reconciliation. The cold and heat can get through the window, you can hurt yourself on the broken glass.
My point is that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing! Forgiveness involves one person: you either choose to forgive or you don’t. The other person or the situation can make it difficult to forgiven, but forgiveness is a one person affair (and that’s what the Gospel is about next week).
But reconciliation?! Reconciliation is a two person affair. You cannot reconcile things by yourself. The process involves the other person. If the other person does not “own” the sin, if they do not acknowledge that they did wrong, if they refuse to address the problem…sure, you can give forgiveness, but there cannot be reconciliation.
(3) “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ…”
But there is one final thing: How is this not just some more good advice that we could have gotten from any decent psychologist? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that forgiving and reconciling with people is good thing. Jesus isn’t in the business of giving good advice for the sake of good advice. This is good news! Why?
St. Paul tells us, “It all comes from God. He reconciled us to himself through the Messiah.…God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting [our] trespasses against [us].…The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor 5:18-21).
Jesus the Messiah was the innocent one who died the death of the guilty. But he didn’t die because God needed to punish someone, or because God is bloodthirsty, no. The Messiah died as the fulfillment of covenantal love, faithful love, reconciling love. The death of the Messiah is the story of the victory of that type of love; the kind of self-giving love that, as it turns out, has power over every other kind of worldly power. Jesus bore the sin of the many; the innocent one died in the place of the guilty. And through this, the relationship between mankind and God was reconciled. We used to be no people, but now we are God’s people. We used to be alienated from God, the relationship used to be broken and disfigured. But now it is repaired. We are reconciled.
(4) “…and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”
And what does this mean for us? Again, we can get advice from a psychologist that it is good to reconcile with people and forgive people. As Christians, why do we care? Why does Jesus spend so much time in his discourse on the Church talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and healing of division? Because this reconciliation and healing is a powerful sign of the love of God, a powerful witness to the power of living a life of faith in Jesus Christ.
What does St. Paul conclude? “God reconciled us to himself through the Messiah, and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.…[He] entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.…[Why?] So that in [Jesus Christ] we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant” (2 Cor 5:14-21).
If we think that being a Christian means getting Baptized, begrudgingly going to Mass and Confession, saying prayers and trying to “get to heaven”—if that’s what we think this is, then you’re right, this is ridiculous. But that’s not what’s going on. We’re playing a different game. When Jesus died his death on the cross, he didn’t unlock the gates of heaven. He restored us to our ability to carry on the vocation that was given to us in the beginning, the vocation we have because we are created in the image of God. Our job, our vocation, the reason we exist in the first place, is to carry out the purposes of God in the world!
What is our incentive to do this? Why should we care? “The Messiah’s love makes us press on,” St. Pauls says. It’s the recognition that “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), that the King himself loved me and died for me. Not that he subjected me and oppresses me and is forcing me to do this “or else!” No, it’s the Good News that even though I am deserving of death, the King, the Son of God himself died for me, “the innocent one died the death of the guilty one.” And why did he do that? So that we can begrudgingly try to get to heaven? No. But “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:15).
Jesus the Messiah didn’t die to “unlock the gates of heaven.” Jesus the Messiah died to restore us to our full vocation as image bearing creatures! We are little christs, little anointed ones, the ones God sends to do the work of restoring all of creation. And this vocation includes the “ministry of reconciliation” that St. Paul talks about, what Jesus preaches about in our Gospel today. And we do this not because it helps psychologically to reconcile with others, but so that in Jesus Christ, as members of the Body of Christ, we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. And the covenant God is being faithful to is the covenant of New Creation. The covenant is not to take us to heaven when we die, but to give us a new and renewed existence now, even now. And a New Heavens and a New Earth in the life to come.
This is why reconciliation among disciples is so important! When people see us divided, sinning against one another—when the Body of Christ is not united, we fail in our vocation to embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and everything else falls apart. Reconciliation isn’t a nice thing to hope for, it’s a necessity. And just as Jesus initiated the process of reconciliation with us who had sinned against him, it is our vocation to initiate the process of forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have sinned against us.
But this is possible only in Christ—through him, with him, and in him. And when reconciliation occurs, when that relationship in Christ is renewed, the powers of sin are defeated and the Kingdom of God breaks in. Hatred, revenge, and discord are overcome. And the reconciliation Christ won through his death and resurrection are spread throughout the whole world, as we await the new heavens and new earth, where the fullness of peace and unity will shine forth, in the unending banquet which is foreshadowed here on this altar.