By Father Donald Dilger
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
The priest and prophet Ezekiel seems to have been among the 8,000 exiles taken to the land of Babylon (today Iraq) in 598 B.C. This was not the main exile. That would not happen until 587-586 B.C. after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonian army. Ezekiel’s prophetic minis-try to the exiles in Babylon began in 593 B.C. As far as is known, his last dated oracle was delivered in 571 B.C. In today’s first reading, approximately dated 585 B.C., Ezekiel receives his commission from the Lord God to be the watchman (sentry, religious policeman) over Israel, “I have appointed you watchman for the House of Israel.” This is his second commission for this ministry. The first commissioning took place in 593 B.C. See Ezekiel 3:12-21. What motivates the second commissioning? The Babylonian army is about to destroy Jerusalem. Even though it may be too late, Ezekiel is moved to once again warn the wicked who, in the theology of the Book of Ezekiel, brought on the destruction as a punishment from the Lord. The Lord’s chosen way of addressing the prophet is “son of man,” which means “Man! or “Oh Man,” or “Human.” Not very personal, but God does say in Isaiah 55:8, “My ways are not your ways.”
Ezekiel’s job description: “When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” The negative tone of these words implies that the Lord will do some correcting of thoughts and act-ions among his people. And so it was! The prophet is commissioned to speak the following warning to the wicked, “O wicked one. You will surely die!” Next comes the Lord’s statement motivating Ezekiel to do his job. Speaking to the prophet, “If, (after hearing from me), you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” This first principle, removed from the context of Ezekiel’s mission, expresses motivation for parents and others responsible for instructing their charges in moral and doctrinal guidance. Then follows the other side of the coin, “But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” This second principle serves as a consolation to parents and those who take their place. If they have done their best in guiding those in their charge, but their charges reject their guidance, the Lord will not hold them responsible.
The Responsorial Psalm 95, is a direct response or extension of the warnings of the first reading. This is clear in the people’s response to the verses, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” One verse needs clarifying, “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the days of Massah in the desert, where your ancestors tempted me, even though they had seen all my deeds (for them).” The two place names mean “testing and strife.” The Old Testament is not clear about the “test” to which the wandering Israelites put the Lord. That leaves us at least two options: that it was a test of the Levites about renunciation of family, Deuteronomy 33:8-9, or a test of the Israelites grumbling against Moses and the Lord about the lack of water, Exodus 17:1-7.
The second reading is part of Paul’s exhortation to the Romans. It can serve as a challenge to those who say that we are saved by faith alone. Paul begins by citing a commandment that sums up all the commandments, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for the one who loves another fulfills the law (the Torah).” Then he lists the commandments related to neighbor, and summarizes them, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, works that work the commandment of love. Not faith alone, but faith and works.
The gospel reading is part of the fourth of five great sermons Matthew composed out of oral and written traditions attributed to Jesus. The fourth of these sermons is called, “Community Regulations.” Among the community regulations are guidelines for fraternal correction. There are four steps. The first step is private correction: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” If the correction is accepted, “You have won over your brother.” If not, the second step: “. . . take one or two others along with you so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” The quote within quotes refers to Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong or for any offense . . . .” If the offender refused to be corrected, the third step: “Tell the church,” that is, bring the situation before the gathered community of which the offender is a member. If the offender rejects correction from the whole assembled Christian community, the fourth step: “Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Meaning: the offender is now outside the Christian Community — excommunication.
Additional authority is given to the community decision, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.” So one must ask, “Is excommunication final? No, because not only can the community bind. It can also unbind.
As time went on, the binding and unbinding, including and excluding of an offender from communion or community, moved from the whole community to the one who officially represents the community — the bishop. Today perhaps a parish council or pastoral council might represent the whole parish community, but generally the bishop of the diocesan community is the decider — to include or exclude. The parish or assembly role is dormant. How does the authority of binding and unbinding relate to the authority given to Simon Peter — the gospel reading of two Sun-days ago? Does the assembled community share in the Petrine authority? The community’s authority is not the same. Simon Peter’s authority is backed up by his office as “the Rock on which the Church is built,” and by Jesus bestowing on him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” More on the question of excluding or including, forgiving or not forgiving, in next Sunday’s gospel.