If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.
The texts for this Sunday are absolutely decisive for the form God wants for his Church. Mutual admonition is essential in the Church. It is an obligation resting on every Christian for we are members of one body and the entire organism cannot afford to be indifferent when a single member injures himself and thereby damages the life of the whole.
But the counsel of Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday seems to be a recipe for disaster, drama and discord. We know that there are miserable souls who easily get their feelings hurt and are certain that their misery is someone else's fault. Experience teaches us that confrontation is a last resort and something we should avoid like a plague. Bringing others to witness can turn into bullying. Excommunication is surely a bit of overkill for our petty squabbling.
But consider the alternative. We bottle out up our resentments against other folks. What was once something relatively trivial becomes a harden disposition against those who have wronged us. We tell everyone the problem with X except X. And what about the business of being in love and charity with our neighbors as a precondition for receiving Holy Communion? Never mind some authority excommunicating us; we excommunicate ourselves.
The problem is, as St. Augustine said, we are born ‘cracked’ -- maybe a clearer way of talking about original sin. According to some of the Church Fathers, the oldest profession is actually that of a tailor : Adam took fig leaves and sewed them together to hide his nakedness and the human race has been hiding ever since. We may know that we cannot hide from God but we still want to hide from each other.
Worst of all we hide ourselves from ourselves. So when someone accuses us we defend ourselves. Just like Adam and Eve: “Eve told me to eat the apple . . . The serpent said I could eat the apple”. There is no greater waste of time than defending ourselves and yet it is the thing we spend most of our time doing. Not only against the charges of others but the accusations we make against ourselves. No wonder when someone points out our sins we scramble to plead ‘not guilty’.
The Gospel for this Sunday is intended as a remedy for just this sort of situation and it has some of the precision of canon law. Or maybe better it is like the rule of St. Benedict. A great part of the Rule deals with what exactly the monastic community is do when monks do not behave themselves. But it is as St. Benedict insists “the advice of a loving father”. The Gospel today is like that: very precise directions if your brother sins against you but the counsel of a Loving Father.
First, it is a matter between you and him alone. It means what it says. If you have told everyone else about how badly you have been treated, then you have no business whatsoever admonishing your brother. It is not enough to be right. Anyway you will have compounded the problem because now your brother has something against you, if you have babbled the whole thing to everyone, he is right about you as well.
Second, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. This is not so they can help you bully your brother but so that they can tell you, if necessary, that you are wrong. There is simply too much that can get in the way of the truth, especially our emotions and we need referees to make sure we are speaking the truth.
Notice that in many ways up to this point the burden is on the accuser. Now it is upon the accused. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. The issue at this final stage is not so much that your brother has sinned but that he has refused to repent.
The Church is a community of penitents. That is a distinguishing characteristic of the Church. It is not that we are the good guys and everyone outside the Church are bad guys. It is rather that we are the bad guys who are willing to own up to our faults and to turn away from them, even if we have to keep turning away time after time. If you cannot repent, you will not be happy in the Church anyway.
Quite frankly there is nothing in the life of the Church which makes the habit of repentance prompt than regular use of the Sacrament of Repentance. Before Almighty God, blessed Mary and all the saints we accuse ourselves: I accuse myself of the following sins. It helps us learn to stop hiding and defending ourselves. It gives us the grace, when we are corrected by others, to say like grownup Christians: “guilty as charged, thanks, I am sorry.”
St. Jerome insisted in contrast to our cracked selves that we follow nudus nudum Christum – ‘naked we follow the naked Christ’. So Jesus himself calls us to follow him in the Gospel today.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone