Sunday, September 7, 2008

ON BROTHERLY CORRECTION

HOMILY for the 23rd Sunday Year A
Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples:“If your brother sins against you,go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.If he does not listen,take one or two others along with you,so that ‘every fact may be establishedon the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church,then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

“Stop living in your bubble. Try to connect more and be interested in others. Pay attention to people. They’re more important than your books and your ideas”.

I used to hear those words (or variations of them) again and again from my teachers when I was a student. I’d hear them even from my parents. But I used to not like being corrected. I was always right, and especially about myself—I was always right. Being corrected is for the weak-minded, I’d always think. I’m smarter than most of those correcting me. So forget being corrected. I march to my own beat.

Years later, however, I had to realize--suddenly and, unfortunately, with great embarassment, that I still had much work to do. When I first began teaching, I paid little attention to my students. I'd come into class, my head usually bowed, carrying a pile of books. I'd place them on the table, go to the lectern, close my eyes and begin praying. Was I concerned to greet my students first or see how they were doing? Of course not. My mind was totally focused on the 'brilliant' lecture I had prepared and was about to give. Anyway, normally the room would be all noisy when I'd step in, then it'd quiet down, and as I prayed, the students would usually join in. But not that morning. I finished praying but it was still too silent. With my eyes closed, I thought, "Ok, well, perhaps they're not in a praying mood today".

I ended the prayer, raised my head, looked at the students, and then to my shock, realized: THIS ISN'T MY CLASS!!! They were all staring at me like they had seen some alien from mars! When I opened my mouth, all I could say was, "Oops. Sorry folks. Just tell your next professor, you've already prayed and don't need to do it anymore". We all just laughed. I left the room, those words of advice from my seminary days ringing in my ears: "Pay attention to people. They're more important than your ideas and books".

The words of the first reading and the gospel today can be summed up in one idea: ‘being-corrected’. But there are two sides to it: the side of the one being corrected, and the side of the one offering the correction.

(On being corrected)

One of the most valuable things I learned from the seminary is the importance not only of being open to correction, but of taking it seriously in my effort to grow as a person. It is important to listen attentively to the voice of others—especially (in our case) those who have been given the task by the church to form us.

Being strong-willed and independent, and marching to one’s own beat are not necessarily bad things. But being a little stubborn is one thing. Pigheadedness or obstinacy is another. And it’s a hindrance to our growth as persons and as future priests.

(On correcting another)

But what about being the one correcting someone who’s in error, or someone who offends us, or someone who is in fact stubborn and pigheaded? What do you do when despite your many appeals to the other to change his ways, your words are not heeded? How should you treat that person?

It’s important to note what Jesus has to say in the gospel. It’s very practical advice. Never put a brother to shame. Speak to him privately, he says. If he doesn’t listen, call witnesses. (Jesus was speaking of an ‘intervention’ long before psychology even invented the concept) If he still doesn’t listen, tell the church. But what if he still doesn’t listen?

It is here that we see the real difference between Jesus’ moral teachings and those of other moral teachers in history. If he still doesn’t listen, treat him as you would Gentiles and tax collectors. Now on the surface that seems to suggest that we treat a pigheaded brother with contempt, shun and avoid him.

But look again. How did Jesus in fact treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Not with contempt, but with love, compassion, understanding, and infinite patience.

- Essentially, what Jesus was saying was: “Never give up on an erring brother”. As God never gives up on even the worst sinner, but continues to call him to a change of heart, so must we never give up on the stubborn and obstinate.

But what do you do when all your efforts to correct an erring brother or friend seems to fail?

The spiritual author and psychologist Adrian Van Kaam in one of his works says: “Be a silent witness to the values and principles you hold to be true. If your erring brother does not wish to listen to your words, perhaps your actions, your quiet witnessing will one day change his heart”. We witness silently to the values we hold to be true, even if the brother refuses to listen. This doesn’t mean we consent to his mistake or agree that he is right. Rather it simply means that our love for him makes us refuse to give up on him. But it also, and more importantly, makes us recognize that he has his own freewill which hopefully, through our patience and witnessing, will one day lead him to the good and the true.

But there’s more. When I was a seminarian in Belgium, I had such an experience. One of my fellow-seminarians who was a good guy but I thought had some very serious problems that he simply refused to recognize, was giving the community a very hard time. We knew he would be a great priest someday, but he had some attitudes and ideas that just weren’t good. And he happened to be in my class.

I remember talking to one of the priests one night, complaining about the guy and how I was really starting to dislike him. I still remember his advice—because I wrote it in my journal afterwards and decided to do it. “You know what, whenever I encounter someone like that, or even someone who gives me a hard time. I pray for them. I just include them in my prayers all the time. I’m not sure what that would accomplish, but I do it. Don’t ask that God will change him. Just ask God to bless him. Pray for him”.

Those words came from a priest by the name of Robert Vallee. I still remember those words to this day. And that seminarian who used to be my number one source of annoyance in the seminary is today one of my best friends. He’s a priest. He came to my ordination and preached at my first mass.

Correction is a tricky thing. Whether we’re the one being corrected or the one offering it, it’s important to keep in mind the reason behind it. St. Paul could not have put it more eloquently: “Love” he says, “is the fulfillment of the law”.

Whether we’re the one being corrected, or the one offering it, if it is love that motivates and moves us, we can never go wrong.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)