Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A Ez 33:7-9, Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9, Rom 13:8-10, Mt 18:15-20
All of us here know people, perhaps even members of our family, who lead lives that are contrary to what Christ wants, and so all of us can learn a great deal from what we’ve just heard. Today’s readings all focus on the need to admonish the sinner, the third spiritual work of mercy. That word admonish comes from the Latin ad monere, to warn, and this is what we heard clearly in the first reading. In no uncertain terms Ezekiel tells us that our salvation depends on doing so: “If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,” the prophet tells us, “the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” We have a responsibility, an obligation, to admonish sinners, meaning, to warn them about their actions and to urge and encourage their conversion. Christ Himself tells us that this is what we must do when someone sins against us.
The context for Christ’s words is very important: right before this passage in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the parable of the lost sheep, and ends that parable with the following line right before where today’s Gospel begins. Christ says: “In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” It’s after these words, full of real love and mercy, that Jesus tells His followers they must admonish sinners. As Saint Paul writes to Timothy, “God our savior . . . wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:3-4). God wants everyone to make it to heaven, but many people won’t make it there if we don’t show them the way. Far from being an act of pride or judgment, admonishing the sinner is a great act of love, as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” We can do evil to our neighbor if we don’t warn him about the consequences of his actions.
When we consider admonishing the sinner, we can start with three principles, three points of reference, that can guide us to better understand this spiritual work of mercy and the way to practice it in our lives. These three principles are, first, that there are things that are objectively wrong, second, that sin will never make us happy, and third, to present these truths is an act of mercy.
This first principle is really important, and it’s not one that people easily accept today: there really are things that are objectively wrong, things that are intrinsically evil. When Jesus speaks in the Gospel, this is what we should understand; there are big sins, the serious sins, that we must help our brothers and sisters to convert from. This isn’t something that we know only by faith; even reason tells us that there’s certain deeds, certain actions that can’t be directed towards God or done out of love for Him, and also go against our dignity as humans, made in God’s image and likeness. Even the famous philosopher of ancient Greece, Aristotle, who lived a long time before Christ, recognized that there are certain deeds that make it impossible for man to be happy, acts that drag man down to the level of the animals. The Second Vatican Council gives a partial list of such deeds: things like genocide, abortion, euthanasia, torture, slavery, as well as contraception, adultery, and more. We must keep this in mind, because even people who aren’t Catholic or don’t believe in anything can be brought to accept the fact that certain things are always bad, and if we are really firm in our belief and understanding of this, we can help a great number of people.
The second truth is that sin never makes us happy; it can’t. The only thing that can make us happy is doing God’s will, especially in following His law. This is written into our very nature. As Saint Augustine wrote in the Confessions, God “has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often hear people tell us not to impose our beliefs or impose our faith or morality on them. In reality, we don’t impose anything on anyone. What we do is propose; we propose a way of life that will make them happy, that will satisfy their deepest longs. This way of life, the way to happiness, is written in their very soul. God Himself has made us to seek Him. It’s written in our nature; sin doesn’t make us happy.
When we sin, it “wounds our nature,” as the Catechism says , because it takes us away from what we should be. It diminishes us, and saddens us. It’s not uncommon that we priests hear confessions of people who have been away from the Church for a long time, and often they say, “I came because I wanted peace; I wanted to be happy.” Sin never makes us happy, and this is why admonishing the sinner is a work of mercy, our third point.
In a homily on this passage of the Gospel, the great Saint Augustine explains it this way: he writes “If someone has done you injury and you have suffered, what should be done? You have heard the answer already in this scripture: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.’ If you fail to do so, you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound.”
Even that harshest punishment, when Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” even that harsh punishment, is done out of love, to show the person how radically they have separated themselves from God and how radically separated from God they will be for all eternity if they do not change their lives.
It is an act of mercy to tell people the truth about sin, to tell them about what makes for true happiness. When we present the truth to them in this way, not in anger or in pride, and not about little things like venial sins that might annoy us but aren’t as serious, when we do this, we are truly being merciful and helping to lead their souls to heaven.
Today, we can ask ourselves how we deal with the people around us. Do we stand up for the dignity of the human person, especially in the face of sin? Do we preach the truth with love and mercy? Do we try to lead souls to God? Even if they don’t listen or change, we still have a tool at our disposal, as Christ tells us towards the end of the Gospel: “Amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Today, then, let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Refuge of Sinners, for the grace of conversion for those sinners in our lives and who have no one else to pray for them, and for ourselves, that we might have the courage to preach the truth with love.
 Here ends the list of Vatican II.
 Cf. Veritatis splendor, 80.