23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and that is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Love and Brotherly Correction
Today's readings address the duty of the righteous to call sinners in their faith communities to repentance and to restore fellowship with the Lord and the community of the faithful.  In the First Reading, God tells the prophet/priest Ezekiel that he will be held accountable for the souls of the covenant people who are sinners if he fails to speak out against their bad behavior and call them to repentance.  It is the same obligation that rests with the ministerial priesthood today.  As Jesus' representatives, they must teach the New Covenant people of God about the dangers of sin, the rewards of righteousness, and the covenant obligations the people have accepted as baptized and confirmed members of Jesus' Kingdom of the Church. 

God continually calls every generation to act on the refrain we sing in the Responsorial Psalm: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."  In the Psalm, we hear the voice of God speaking to His people "today," warning them not to fall into the sin of rebellion like the Exodus generation.  The people of that generation swore obedience to God in the sacramental bond of covenant, but they failed to trust God, preferring their own plan over God's divine plan for His people.  Those who are guilty of repeating the sin of rebellion like the Exodus generation and acting according to their own understanding, instead of acting according to the commandments of Jesus Christ, separate themselves from fellowship and covenant unity with the Lord.  They will have to face the consequences of their rebellion, like the members of the Exodus generation who never lived to see the Promised Land.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds the Roman Christians, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, quoting from Jesus' summation of the seven of the Ten Commandments concerning the obligation to love one's fellow man/woman.  To obey Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves is to express concern for their salvation.  Love is the central requirement of Christian life.  It is how Jesus commanded us to behave towards one another when He said: "Love one another as I have loved you."  It is a holy love generated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and is meant to flow outward from the souls of Christians to every person so that the whole world will become transformed by Christ's life-giving love. 

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus addresses the subject of brothers or sisters engaged in sin but remain in the fellowship of the faith community.  Jesus gives four steps are we to follow when a "brother" or "sister" has fallen into error to bring them to repentance and renew their fellowship with God and the community.  He also affirms the Church's authority to "bind" and "loose" in judging sin.

God established Ezekiel as the "watchman" over the "house of Israel," and Jesus established His Apostles and disciples and their successors as guardians of the salvation of the "new Israel" that is His Church.  As this generation's disciples of the Lord, we must bravely take up the obligation to safeguard the teachings of Jesus Christ within the covenant family of His Kingdom of the Church.  Jesus calls us to offer correction in brotherly love by judging the sin but not the soul of the sinner; that is a prerogative that belongs only to God.

The First Reading Ezekiel 33:7-9 ~ The Watchman of Israel
7 Thus says the LORD: You, son of man I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.  8 If I tell the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die," and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, [the wicked] shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.  9 But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

In the cities and towns of Biblical times, the watchmen on the city walls or out on the hills were the vanguard of the people's defensive system.  They were responsible for sounding a warning when there was danger.  In this passage, God tells the prophet Ezekiel, a priest who was God's emissary to the covenant people in exile (Ez 1:2), that he has a similar mission for the covenant people in exile.  God told him it is his responsibility to warn the people when they were in danger from sin within the covenant community (verse 7).  If he knows there is sin and does not warn the people, then the people will suffer punishment, and God will hold him accountable for his failure to warn them (verse 8).  However, if God's prophet warns the people, and they refuse to repent, they shall suffer for their sins, but Ezekiel will not experience punishment for the people's failure (verse 9).

This accountability for teaching about sin is the same obligation placed upon the ordained priesthood of today.  It is the Church's responsibility to teach the New Covenant people of God about sin, righteousness and the covenant obligations the people have accepted as baptized and confirmed members of Jesus' Kingdom of the Church.  Like the warning to His prophet Ezekiel, God will also hold the New Covenant priesthood accountable for any failures as the guardians of the salvation of the new Israel of the Church.  However, this is not an easy task.  Priests are often harshly criticized for speaking out to their congregations on the hard topics of divorce, abortion, contraception, and premarital sex.  If you have a priest who fearlessly preaches against sin, support him, and tell him he is a true guardian of the people of God.

Responsorial Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9 ~ A Call to Praise and Obedience
The response is: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."

1 Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD; let us acclaim the rock of our salvation.  2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
Response:
6 Come, let us bow down in worship let us kneel before the LORD who made us.  7 For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
Response:
8 Oh, that today you would hear his voice; "Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, 9 where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works."
Response:

The psalmist begins with an invitation to praise Yahweh, the hope of the people's salvation (verses 1).  Next, the psalmist invites the people to offer God their thanks and hymns of praise in the liturgy of worship (verse 2).  Yahweh is the divine King of the people He created when He took them out of bondage in Egypt and made them into a free people (verse 6).  He guides and protects His people like a shepherd cares for his flock (verse 7). 

In verse 8 we hear the voice of God speaking to his people "today," warning them not to fall into sin like their ancestors of the Exodus generation (Ex 17:17; Num 20:2-13; Ps 78).  The warning is to avoid what happened to the rebellious Exodus generation, so a repeat of their failures will not happen to the people "today" who are praising the Lord in their liturgy of worship.

9 where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.
Tempting God or "putting God to the test" (Dt 6:16; Ps 106:14; Mal 3:10) means testing His goodness and fidelity by attempting to force Him to act, implying that His previous deeds are not enough proof of His love.  When we recite this psalm, we should understand the word "today" literally.  These verses are a warning to the covenant people of every generation to avoid any repetition of the rebellion of the Exodus generation of Israelites in the wilderness.  The people of that generation had sworn obedience to God in the sacramental bond of a covenant union, but they failed to trust God, preferring their own plan over God's divine plan for His people.  Those who are guilty of repeating the sin of rebellion like the Exodus generation and acting according to their own understanding instead of acting according to the commandments of Jesus Christ will also face divine judgment (see Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:4-6).  Like the Exodus generation, they will never live to enter into the "Promised Land" (Num 14:30, 35), but the punishment is more severe because the "Promised Land" of the generations since the Advent of Christ is Heaven.

The Second Reading Romans 13:8-10 ~ Love Fulfills the Law
13:8 Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  10 Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

13:8 Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
St. Paul writes that the only debt a Christian should owe is a debt of love.  Paul advises avoiding the obligation of a debt since it is a condition that makes one a "slave" of the person who holds the debt.  However, he says to owe a debt of love is quite different because to love the other person is to fulfill the law, referring to the Law of the Ten Commandments.  

St. Paul's focus in this passage is on Christian love and the Law.  Love is the central requirement of the Christian life.  It is how Jesus commanded us to behave towards one another when He said: "Love one another as I have loved you."  Holiness is at the core of life-giving love, flowing from the Most Holy Trinity into the soul of the believer.  It is a holy love generated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Acts of love are meant to flow outward from the souls of Christians to every person they meet, transforming the world by Christ's life-giving love.  St. John wrote to the faithful of the Church concerning the obligation to share Christ's love: My dear friends, let us love one another, since love is from God and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.  Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8).

9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 
At the end of verse 9 when Paul writes "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," he quotes both from Jesus' summation of the Ten Commandments dealing with the love of one's fellow man or woman in Matthew 22:37-40 and from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:17-18.  In other words, this is not a new teaching; it was a teaching in the old Law that was affirmed by Jesus in the new Law.  Jesus summarized the Law of the Ten Commandments when He said: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets too" (Mt 22:37-40).  Paul also quoted from both these passages in Galatians 5:13-14, writing: After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: You must love your neighbor as yourself.  The point is that loving one's neighbor and treating him with unselfish love is the best way we can demonstrate our love for God who, after all, created our neighbor.

In verse 9 Paul lists four commandments that are directly related to "love of neighbor" from the Ten Commandments (see Ex 20:13-17 and Dt 5:17-21)

  1. You shall not commit adultery
  2. You shall not kill
  3. You shall not steal
  4. You shall not covet

The number four in Scripture represents the earth.  Therefore, in quoting these four commandments, Paul summarizes the laws of conduct that order our right relationship with our brothers and sisters in the human family.  He makes this clear by quoting Jesus' commandment to love that sums up all the other commandments concerned with man's relationship with man: You must love your neighbor as yourself.

But how is "love the fulfillment of the Law," as Paul states in Romans 13:10?  Through faith in the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is a gift of God's grace, we are now enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christian baptism to live lives of self-sacrificial love and to love as Christ loved us.  This love generated by the power of the Spirit enables us to fulfill from our hearts the Law as promised by the 6th-century BC prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:31-33 ~ Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I shall make a new Covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah, but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, even though I was their Master, Yahweh declares.  No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh declares.  Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts.  Then I shall be their God and they will be my people (emphasis added).

The Gospel of Matthew 18:15-20 ~ Conduct Toward a Brother or Sister who Sins
15 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.  16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church [ekklesia].  If he refuses to listen even to the church [ekklesia], then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.  18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  19 Again, [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.  20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I [I AM] in the midst of them." [...] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 53).

In this passage, Jesus addresses the subject of brothers or sisters who are engaged in sin but remain in the fellowship of the faith community.  Jesus gives four steps to follow when a "brother" or "sister" has fallen into error in verses 15-20:

  1. Go to the person within the community who is in error or who has wronged you and privately tell him his fault.
  2. If he listens, reconcile with him.  But if he does not listen, take others along and speak to him a second time so that you have witnesses to the discussion.
  3. If he refuses to listen or mend his ways, take the problem to the Church (first the priest or possibly the Bishop).
  4. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then the person is to be considered outside the fellowship of the community.

The first step in the process of brotherly correction comes from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:17~ You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.  The second step from Deuteronomy 19:15 ~ One witness alone shall not take the stand against a man in regard to any crime of any offense of which he may be guilty; a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  In the third step, if the person refuses to listen or repent, the offense becomes a judicial case under the jurisdiction of the leadership of the Church.  In the fourth and final step, the Church may impose the redemptive judgment of excommunication.  The drastic measure in separating a covenant believer from the Sacraments is a last resort to attempt to bring that person to repentance and back into communion with God and fellowship with his covenant brothers and sisters (CCC 1444-45). 

17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church [ekklesia].  If he refuses to listen even to the church [ekklesia], then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 
All Gentiles, who were outside of the community of the faithful before the birth of the New Covenant Church at Pentecost (Acts 2), were considered to be sinners, and "tax collectors" is a metaphor for sinners in general. We have the responsibility to correct those within the Christian family of our faith communities who are in sin, but do we have the responsibility to correct those who are not Christians?  The answer is that we are responsible for the conduct of those within the Church, and we have the responsibility to preach the Gospel of salvation to those outside the Church.  However, as for those who choose to live steeped in sin outside the Church, we are to avoid them (Mt 18:17).  They are to be left to God's discipline (1 Cor 5:13a) and the judgments of the civil authorities.   Also see Mt 18:17; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Mk 4:11-12; 1 Cor 5:12-13; Col 4:5; 1 Thes 4:12; 1 Tim 3:7.

18 Amen, I say to you [plural], whatever you bind [plural] on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [plural] on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
With the exception of the plural form of the pronoun "you" and the plural verbs "bind" and "loose," this passage is almost identical to what Jesus said to St. Peter in Matthew 16:19b ~ "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."  In Matthew 18:18, Jesus gives the same authoritative power to "bind and loose" that he gave to St. Peter, the Vicar (chief minister) of His earthly Kingdom in Matthew 16:19.  He now gives this authority to His other ministers who are, together with Peter, the hierarchy of the New Covenant Church. 

The Greek word ekklesia supports this interpretation.  The Greek word ekklesia, or the "called out ones," k(q)ahal in Hebrew (which we translate into English as "church") only occurs in the Gospels in these two passages in Matthew 16:18 and in 18:17.  There are many examples in Jewish literature of this same binding and loosing imagery, and in those cases, the references are to the giving of authoritative teaching and the imposition of the ban of exile from the community (excommunication) or the lifting of such a ban.  Jesus will repeat the declaration of this power and authority to the Apostles assembled in the Upper Room on Resurrection Sunday (Jn 20:22-23).  See the same "binding and loosing"/ "open and shut" imagery in Isaiah 22:22 concerning the authority of the Davidic king's chief steward/vicar.

It is clear from these three passages (Mt 16:19, 18:18, and Jn 20:22-23) that the hierarchy of the Church has the authority of heaven itself in passing verdicts on what kinds of behavior are considered acceptable within the community of believers.  It is an authority that did not end with the deaths of the Apostles.  In Acts 1:15-26, the eleven surviving Apostles, after the death of Judas Iscariot, chose a twelfth Apostle to take the place of Judas.  It was their understanding that the hierarchy of Jesus' Kingdom was intended to continue.  The hierarchy of the Church, established by Jesus through Peter and the Apostles and continued through their successors in the Universal Magisterium, composed of the Pope and the Council of Bishops, has the authority of heaven in passing verdicts on:

See CCC 553.

19 Again, [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.  20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Jesus' statement in verse 20 recalls the judicial ruling in the old Law that called for two or three witnesses to testify against the accused in a trial (Dt 19:15).  But in this case, when believers gather to pray in one accord in the name of Jesus, He is their witness, standing in their midst and receiving their petition.  In the context of this passage, united prayer is a petition for the Lord's intervention in the life of a brother or sister whose soul is in peril because of sin.  Bible scholar John Nolland notes that "behind the binding and loosing of verse 18 stands the prayer of verse 19" (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, page 749).

... am I [I AM] in the midst of them.
Jesus encouraged both private and public prayer, but here He confirms the power of faith expressed in communal prayer with the promise of His presence, as we pray in the Intercessory Prayers during the Mass (see CCC 1088 and 1373).  Jesus' promise "there I AM in the midst of them" (the better translation) recalls a prophecy about the Messiah from Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14 and the promise Jesus will make in Matthew 28:20.  His promise in Matthew 28:20 recalls the title "Emmanuel" (meaning "God with us") given in Isaiah 7:14 and repeated as fulfilled in Jesus in Matthew 1:23.  It was after Jesus' resurrection that He promised the disciples "And behold, I AM with you always, until the end of the age" (emphasis added).  When we pray together with one accord in Jesus' name, we can have confidence that God fulfills this promise.

Catechism References:
Psalm 95:1-2 (CCC 2628); 95:6-8 ((CCC 2659); 95:7 (CCC 1165); 95:9 (CCC 2119)
Romans 13:8-10 (CCC 1824, 2196); 13:8 (CCC 2845); 13:9-10 (CCC 2055)
Matthew 18:16 (CCC 2472); 18:16 (CCC 2472); 18:18 (CCC 553, 1444); 18:20 (CCC 1088, 1373)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017