People love us Filipinos for being warm, hospitable, and friendly. We are often perceived as natural pleasers. Psychologists attribute these traits to the high value we put on maintaining a smooth interpersonal relationship (SIR) with everyone
Thus, we find today’s liturgical readings, which revolve around the theme of fraternal correction, difficult and challenging. We often lack the courage to point out another’s fault lest we offend him and his feelings. We fear he might react negatively, reject our correction, and undermine our relationship in the process. And so, we simply keep quiet and “mind our own business.” Or worse, we do not speak to him of his faults but to others which easily deteriorates into gossiping.
In the first reading, God appoints the prophet Ezekiel as watchman for the house of Israel to dissuade the wicked from his evil ways. If the wicked dies for his guilt because the prophet fails to warn him, the prophet is held responsible for his death.
Like Ezekiel, we too are appointed by God to be our “brother’s keeper” for we are all his children, and hence responsible for one another. The reading reminds us of our own duty to correct an erring brother and the dire consequence of our negligence.
Today’s gospel offers a practical guide on how to do fraternal correction. Jesus suggests three gradual steps in the process. First, take the person who has offended you in private and point out to him the wrong he did. You do this not for the purpose of giving vent to your anger or exacting revenge, but for the sincere desire of helping him and reconciling with him. If he does not listen, approach him again with a witness or two, not to judge him but to help him realize his wrongdoing. If still he does not listen, let the community intervene in his regard. If he does not listen even to the community, let him understand that he has cut himself off from the communion of the Church.
It is important to note that in all this the focus is on the erring brother, and the sole consideration is that he return to the path of righteousness and ultimately be saved.
Fraternal correction is not about us. It goes beyond our concern to maintain smooth interpersonal relationships, or to be vindicated of an injustice. Fraternal correction is about our erring brother and his salvation.
Thus, in correcting, we are called to rise above our hurt and address the hurt of the one who offends us. Fraternal correction is not a reaction to an offense suffered, but an act of love for a brother who is hurting even more than us, though he may not be aware of it.
St Augustine explains this. “Whoever has offended you, in offending you, has inflicted a serious injury upon himself; and would you not care for a brother’s injury?… You must forget the offence you have received but not the injury of one of your brethren (Discourse 82, 7).
The second reading provides the deepest reason why we are to correct an erring brother. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” The ultimate reason for fraternal correction is love. A love we owe to God who for our sake became man and saved us his by his death and resurrection. It is a debt we can never pay enough. And so, God asks us to pay it forward to his people instead. As he has saved us from sin, he now asks us to save our brothers and sisters from falling into sin.
At the end of the gospel, there is a disturbing portion where Jesus says that if the accused refuses to listen to the Church, he is to be treated like one of the gentile or tax collectors. What does this mean? Pope Francis offers an interesting explanation. “This expression, seemingly so scornful, in reality invites us to put the brother in God’s hands: only the Father will be able to show a greater love than that of all brothers and sisters put together.”
Indeed, when we fail to save an errant brother, we can only leave him to God who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes, and welcomes sinners.
The gospel fittingly ends with an exhortation to pray as a community. What we cannot achieve on our own we entrust to God, who alone can touch the human heart and move the sinner to return to him. For he is a God who “take[s] no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ez 33:11)