How many times have you used the citation from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 18:15-20) to tell someone something that you don’t think is right about their actions or their life? We are asked to offer each other guidance and correction but the attitude out of which it is done is paramount. How we say what we need to say, and how we choose to communicate it can make all the difference in the world. If the person to whom we are offering correction already knows that we don’t like them or are suspicious of them, they might rightly get a little defensive or protective of themselves. If they know that you have no connection with their lives and don’t plan to care for them, they might be less apt to give credence to your words. It isn’t okay to go around dropping disruptive comments into someone else’s life and then not take some responsibility for how it affects their lives. We are called to be charitable to all people, but most especially those who are fragile or misguided. We must love our enemies and that should be apparent in what we say and do. As St. Paul says this weekend, “Love does no evil to the neighbor. Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
How do we get to the place where the corrections and admonitions that we offer others come from a humble and contrite heart? How do we make sure that what we are saying and doing with others is what God wants us to say and not our way of getting everybody to do things our way? How can we remain pure of heart and still speak the truth with love?
One criteria for developing these characteristics and virtues is relationship. Notice that both Ezekiel and Matthew speak about the people to whom we are talking as “brother” or the “house of Israel.” This means there is the assumption of relationship. This is not about going up to total strangers and telling them what they are doing wrong and how they can straighten out their lives. It is about understanding the connections we have with all people and the folks that we are approaching are brothers and sisters, members of the People of God. We are to treat them as part of the family, even if there are great differences among us.
Another criteria is having a contrite and humble heart. We cultivate that through noticing our own sins and failings, listening to the corrections and admonitions we receive, and accepting them with graciousness and humility. It means that we must notice the things we see in our neighbor as something we recognize in ourselves. If we see infidelity in others, we have some of that in ourselves as well. If we see waywardness in others, there is certainly plenty of that in us as well. If we see idolatry or dishonesty or greed or promiscuity in others, we certainly need to take the time to claim that in ourselves as well. Otherwise we pretend as if we don’t have sin and we cast the first stone.
Lastly it is important to cultivate gratitude in our own hearts about God’s patience, forgiveness and faithfulness toward us. What we have received we are then more able to give to others.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.