Today’s readings revisit some themes we have seen before – the original vocation of humanity, but they also provide a way to think about the sacrament of reconciliation.
Our first reading has God spelling out the task of the prophet. He is to set watch over Israel. He is to be a sentry to Israel. There are, at least, two aspects to this task. There is the role of gatekeeper, and there is the role of, in a sense, ambassador. We have spoken about these roles before in respect of the primordial vocation of Adam, which means humanity, as gardener. Humanity was to protect paradise, the kingdom of God; and was to gradually extend that order and peace to the rest of creation.
And so God says to the prophet: this is your life. You must proclaim, and you must proclaim nothing but God’s Word. And because this is what life is, to cease to do either part means to stop living.
This brings us to our gospel today. Our passage is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep, which spells out the mission of Jesus Christ, a mission we hear also in the words of absolution . Today’s gospel in a sense fleshes out for us what this means. It has both gatekeeper and ambassador aspects. It speaks of protecting the community through the work of justice, but it also, through and through, pushes the work of reconciliation.
In terms of the gatekeeper role, Jesus makes it quite clear that today’s reading is about reconciling with a wrongdoer. Someone has done wrong. This is not in dispute. There is a garden to protect. There is a church, a community to protect. There really is right and wrong. This reality, the Word of God, cannot be compromised. Here, when Jesus says where two people agree in my name, he is talking about the work of justice, of protecting the moral order, an order intrinsic to creation and the prerequisite to our deification.
However, just as with the parable of the lost sheep, just as with our first reading, it is not enough to simply state what is right and what is wrong, we must seek to bring about reconciliation. And so Jesus sets out a plan of action.
First, speak in private. Give someone the chance to repent and do it in circumstances that encourage that. Don’t shame the person unnecessarily. Show by our actions that what we want is not false moral superiority, but rather the restoration of communion.
However, second, the restoration of communion is so important, our neighbour’s role in the community is so important, that if this does not lead to reconciliation, we cannot let it lie. We must be like our heavenly Father, be like Jesus: we must go after the lost sheep. But this means we must include the community. We must do so in a fair manner. We must be properly humble before the truth, submit ourselves before the Word of God, too. There must be due process: evidence and witnesses. And of course prayer.
Finally, if that does not work, the other person must be made to understand what this means for them. They must understand that to be part of the community means to be under God’s Word. This is the solemn duty of interpreting God’s word in the community and judging actions according to it. Much of the Church’s law deals with who has the right to do this, how this can be done and what the consequences are when this process takes place. Again, reconciliation is so central that a person cannot be left in doubt as to where he or she stands in relation to God’s Word and God’s church.
This is the solemn duty of the Church to teach the moral order. This is the solemn obligation of the Church’s laws. This is the serious duty placed especially on bishops.
But really it is for each one of us. Bishops might have the ultimate responsibility for clearly stating the truth and making the ultimate decisions, but as Jesus points out, there are many serious steps before that, and we should be praying that it never gets that far.
And our prayers to be heartfelt must mean that we assume our part too in this task of reconciliation. We must be serious. Before anything else, we must tend to ourselves. We must reconcile with God before we seek to do this job. Jesus teaches us all this in the sacrament of reconciliation. He comes to us privately, through the teaching of the Church, forming our consciences so that they are in line with God’s will. Then he comes to us privately in the sacrament of reconciliation. This not only heals us, but forms us for the mission of reconciliation.
So, in our Mass today, perhaps we can pray about our roles as ambassadors of reconciliation. Where am I needed today in this respect? What should I do to better understand how to fulfil this task? What graces should I be praying for? Because as we all know, our world at the moment is very short on mercy. It desperately needs the children of God.