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Speaking Out to Dissuade the Sinner and other Messy Propositions

Detail of Tobias Fendt Vision of Ezekiel

Tobias Fendt - WikiCommons

Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 09/05/14

Speak truth in charity, live with integrity and know there is one Savior only and He's not you.

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Abortion, artificial contraception, “gay marriage,” divorce, pornography and wider threats to human dignity, the Church and the family—just to name a few of the ills that plague our society—easily come to mind when one listens to God admonishing the Prophet Ezekiel. “Tell the truth to the wicked or else it will be bad for both of you!”  

The first reading, therefore, invites the homilist to address any number of contentious issues. In so doing, he would be wisely heeding God’s warning that 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.”  

Yet the challenge, of course, is not merely to discharge one’s duty so as to save one’s own skin—“if you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilty but I will hold you responsible for his death”—but to bring those under the veil of sin to repentance.

The homilist, after all, aims not only to illuminate the reality of sin, but also to persuade the sinner to change his ways.

The homily must not only be right in content, but also cast light on the sinner’s circumstances—always a messy proposition—and on the solution to these circumstances: the mercy of God.

This is hardly an easy task because, even when the homilist carefully preaches the truth with love, sinners often take offense. They get angry, upset, complain, send nasty emails or write to the Bishop. As a result, it is easy to imagine that a homilist, or indeed any Christian, will shy away from mentioning unpopular teachings because they will cost him his peace.

Today readings, nevertheless, encourage us to risk losing our peace.

In considering how we might be able to admonish the sinner—a spiritual work of mercy—it is useful to recall that the term, “sinner,” has more than one possible meaning. The obvious literal sense refers to one who has sinned. This is clear.

A second paradoxical use of the term emerges in the Gospels: a “sinner” is the one who understands, and indeed knows, that he cannot possibly save himself, and therefore, cries out to God for mercy. The sinner—and only the sinner—can gain God’s mercy; the righteous (that is, the self-righteous) neither recognizes the need for mercy (although he is terribly sick) nor does he ask for it (because he is, after all, a “good person”).  

Surprisingly, the righteous are the deluded ones, who are in need of the enlightenment that springs from the preaching, which convicts one of his sinfulness (“I stand in desperate need of God’s help”) and that, furthermore, this discovery is indeed very good news (“…and I am the one for whom Jesus Christ has died on the Cross and who wishes to raise me to new life in Him”).

Even after our repentance and baptism, this awakening to reality urges Christians to cultivate humility (“there, but for the grace of God, go I”), which is the antidote to falling backing into self-justification. In this sense, we are still “sinners,” namely, those who know that salvation comes from Jesus Christ alone. Keeping this in mind not only helps us to understand properly the numerous stories about sinners and the righteous in the Gospels but also to undertaken fraternal correction with a gentle spirit.

A third sense of the term, “sinner” clarifies the ethos by which the Church evangelizes the world. On the most profound level, the term, sinner is synonymous with the human race. There is no human being other than the Lord himself—who is a Divine Person—and his Blessed Mother—thanks to the unique grace of the Immaculate Conception—who is not a sinner. The human race, therefore, can be distinguished between those sinners who know this, Christians, and those who do not yet recognize this reality, non-Christians. The difference is not one of being (“we are all sinners before God”), but rather knowledge; hence, the Church’s mandate to be
lumen gentium, light to the nations.

Right and light: these words summarize Church’s mission: to bear the light of Christ to other sinners. Preaching, as it is properly understood as something that happens with words and in church, however, is only one mode of fulfilling this task. An equally important form, whose scope is much broader and follows on the missionary mandate at the end of every Mass (Ite, missa est – go, you are sent!), is the manner in which Christians behave in daily life. Just as a preacher can speak the truth without charity, and thereby, obscure the Gospel, so too any Christian can lead an incoherent life, which causes scandal. This lack of integrity is surely one of the greatest hindrances to the conversion of sinners, both inside and outside of the Church.

Telling the truth in love to someone who is up to no good is one of the hardest things to do in any relationship. Confronted with misconduct or bad news, many people—and especially those who bear the burdens of leadership, whether in families, groups or society—are strongly tempted to look away and hope that matters will resolve themselves. Correcting bad behavior or facing evil demands enormous love to move oneself from the state of rest to action.  

Last week we heard the story of Our Lord’s fraternal correction of Saint Peter. It could not have been a pleasant experience for either of them. Yet, the Lord understood that leaving his friend, the first pope, in a state of misunderstanding—“thinking as men do”—about his mission and about the price that he himself, and all who follow him, must pay, was worse than the momentary discomfort of the rebuke. Our Lord and Saint Peter bore the discomfort and awkwardness of the situation because of their deep love for one another. In the best of circumstances, fraternal correction ends in reconciliation.

Yet we have all experienced the failure of fraternal correction, when a friend or colleague does not hear because he is the grip of self-justification. No matter the arguments, the acts of kindness and patience, the love and sacrifices we undertake, we fail to break through. Our Lord has the answer to what we should do.

If our efforts have not borne fruit, we can, in peace, distance ourselves from this person. This might be the soundest advice we have ever heard when we think about highly dysfunctional relationships in which our continued participation not only fails to help the other, but also endangers ourselves.

While fraternal correction is certainly an expression of Christian love, it does not have the last word.This is the key to our Lord’s pastoral charity to us. He knows that we are not God; we are not the Savior; we are only light; we can help point the way, but we are not the way.

When challenged to correct the wayward brother, we should, of course, strive to make Christ clearly present in our measured words and restrained deeds. But these need not go on indefinitely, especially if they harm our relationship to God. When we withdraw, Christ does not. He has myriads of other disciples who can shed light on this person’s plight.

We can pray for them, but we can also be at peace that there is but one Savior, Jesus Christ.

Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

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