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Surprised by bickering in the Church? You shouldn’t be, and here’s why

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This Sunday’s Gospel comes out of this real experience of tension within the community.

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.”
—Matthew 18:15

It can be easy for us to look back on the stories found in the gospels and imagine that those women and men listening to Jesus were ideal disciples, living in perfect harmony with one another.

If we read the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul, however, we quickly realize that this idyllic community was never a reality. From the earliest days, the Church experienced divisions, disagreements, and disease as believers tried to figure out how to live out the teachings of Jesus individually and as a community of believers. In fact, many of the difficulties we experience in our parishes or religious communities today are the same sorts of challenges faced by those first generations of Christians.

The Gospel of Matthew was composed sometime around the year 85. By this time, the Gospel of Mark and certain oral traditions about Jesus and his first followers had been circulating for years and the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed (this took place in the year 70). This also meant that Matthew’s community would have had time to experience the challenges of discipleship. They were, most likely, a more mature group of Christians who had worked through personality conflicts, the failings of members, and theological disputes, as well as scandal and persecution.

This Sunday’s Gospel comes out of this real experience of tension within the community. It seems that Jesus has no illusions about the challenges of life within the Church. Although the Church is called to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” individual Christians, simply put, don’t always get it right. And so, as Pope Francis has summarized it, this Sunday’s Gospel “presents the theme of brotherly correction within the community of believers: that is, how I must correct another Christian when he does what is not good” (Angelus, September 7, 2014).

As I think of this, I’m struck by two points. The first is the very real understanding that conflicts will arise in communities. Although we Christians are called to live out our commitment to Jesus in dynamic ways, we don’t always make the choices we should, and sin is a reality—a sad reality—that can erode relationships. The second point is that reconciliation is not an option. Moreover, Jesus reminds us that the community has a part to play in helping promote healing and forgiveness. This commitment to reconciliation and bridge-building is fundamental.

Recall that during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invited us to practice the works of mercy. In many communities, families and individuals were invited to practice one of the “corporal” works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick, and imprisoned, clothing the naked, etc. But we didn’t often hear about the spiritual works of mercy. In many ways, it seems that this Gospel passage is a study in the spiritual works of mercy, particularly our call to admonish sinners, bear patiently those who wrong us, forgive offenses, and comfort the afflicted. This is hard work, but as Pope Francis has also reminded us, the works of mercy “will serve as the criteria on which we will be judged” (Misericordiae Vultus, 15).

One of the challenges in this Sunday’s Gospel is that, as Jesus reminds us, the initiative for reconciliation has to come from the person who has been wounded. It’s very rare that the offender starts the process of forgiveness. We are being asked to approach the person who hurt us and try to work for healing. This requires honesty and humility, but there can never be healing if we allow a wound to fester or hold on to a grudge. If this doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to reach out to other believers, first one or two wise individuals and then the whole community, because the quality of our relationships affects the whole community. And, if in the end, that doesn’t bear fruit, he says we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector.”

Although it might seem that Jesus is giving us permission to politely dismiss the person, we have to look at Jesus’ own actions: “Gentiles and tax collectors” were the same people that Jesus befriended and broke bread with (cf. Matthew 8:5-13, 9:9-13, 15:21-28; Abiding Word by Barbara Reid). Ultimately, the message here is that we never have the right to write anyone off or to allow our relationships to wither and die.

In each celebration of the Mass, we take a few moments at the beginning of the liturgy to ask for forgiveness as a community. Each of us has sinned and each of us stands in need of reconciliation and forgiveness. As we continue our journey through Ordinary Time, this Sunday is an invitation for us to reflect on the quality of relationships and to consider who we are being asked to forgive and to also ask ourselves who we might have hurt by our words or actions.

Prayerfully reflect on any grudges or past hurts that you might be holding on to. How might you work toward healing and forgiveness?

Why is forgiveness so important for the life of the Church?

When have you experienced the healing power of forgiveness in your own life?

Words of Wisdom: “We are all sinners and God grants his mercy to all.”—Pope Francis

 

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