“Wait till your father (mother) comes home…” It’s an age-old parental “cop-out.” Tell the kids to stop it, of course. But then wait for the “cop” to arrive and enforce the law. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus turns the tables on this fault-default as one might call it: assigning to another the duty or burden to correct a wrong one clearly sees but feels powerless (or too afraid) to set right.

Like confronting the office or schoolyard bully — are they much different, kids? — it is a pattern and a challenge one experiences almost everywhere every day. The impulse to gossip, tattle or kvetch about — rather than address — wrongs reveals frustration, resignation and a sense of helplessness.When the apostles complained to Jesus, expecting him to do something for the hungry crowds, say, that it was they who felt guilty about sending away, he says, “YOU give them something to eat” (Mk. 6:37). They cite their limited resources as an excuse, forgetting whose presence they are in. Jesus, of course, does something with “twos or threes” (loaves, fishes, people) as he will always do, multiplying the effect of anything done by a few in his name. In the recent Gospel, dealing with personal and community wrongdoing, he first advises, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Mt. 18:15).

Sometimes telling off, calling someone out, is just not enough. In the first reading, also from last Sunday, Ezekiel writes, “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death” (Ez. 33:8). Wham! It could not be clearer that the prophet, like Jesus, does not see scolding alone as particularly effective either as a disciplinary tactic or a morally adequate response to an unjust situation or a sin, whether of a social or purely personal nature. In other words, the problem-seer must also be a problem-solver, part of the solution.

Jesus demands more than commands. He invites conversation, a concerted effort not just to “call out,” but to call in, requiring time, patience and initiative — self investment. In the case of fraternal correction, the injured party, though perhaps not responsible for the wrong, must participate in the healing. Restoration is the goal, not just chastisement. One may indeed be an innocent victim, but he or she cannot linger there, or the wound will only fester. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth, will leave the whole world blind and toothless. Whoever said it first — Gandhi, Tevye or Martin Luther King — it is, in essence, a call to restorative justice that includes everyone, not just cops and parent-surrogates.

Starting person-to-person is clearly the first choice, before gradually involving more. It is not difficult to see that this approach is sensitive to the reputations of the parties. Not only the perpetrator, but the victim may not want to be placed in the limelight. This, of course, may not always work out in all circumstances, especially if the offender is an authority figure. It should at least be considered, however, before going to the next step, keeping in mind that the primary goal is the conversion of the sinner, a change of heart, before forgiveness and restitution can be effective.

If one-to-one is not enough, Jesus suggests complaining to someone else, right? Well, gossip may be the world’s way, but it isn’t what he expects of his disciples — to be defeatists and only aggravate the damages. Instead, he says, bring in one or two others as witnesses. Witnesses, that is, to a conversation. Try that next, and if it does not work, bring in a few more — the church community. Jesus does not specify a number, but the point is clearly that you stay engaged, you do things incrementally and you never give up when a soul is at stake. Again, he assures his disciples that, gathered in his name, “there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).

How empowering a message! Recall the binding power Jesus had given to Peter when he commissioned him as “the rock” or foundation of his church (Mt. 16:19). Now he says of the entire church, “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” (Mt. 18:18). He is encouraging and enabling our communion of faith to do God’s work of admonishing and restoring sinners, of healing painful injustices.

And what if this doesn’t work? Then excommunicate them, of course. Not so fast! Well, why wait? Didn’t Jesus say of the sinner that, “(i)f he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt. 18:17). Yes. But anticipating, no doubt, that many of his disciples would prefer to avoid the hard work of accompanying the sinner — let alone changing their own ways of acting so as to encourage his or her reform along the often plodding path of conversion through better example — he issued some very strong warnings against hypocrisy and rash judgment.

One must always read statements of Jesus within the context of his whole life and ministry. Remember his words against those who cause scandal. Better that they be drowned in the sea with a millstone tied around their neck (Mt. 18:6)! Is my own behavior good news or bad news for straying sheep? Am I working with the Shepherd, am I uniting or scattering the flock?

Recall also the admonitions about the plank one can overlook in one’s own eye while seeking to remove the speck of sawdust in the eye of a perceived offender (Lk. 6:41). But here is the point. God yearns for the conversion and, ultimately, the salvation of the sinner. How this happens certainly requires the sinner’s admission and a confession of guilt — which he or she may never come to unless the reality of the evil is made clear in the pure light of the truth. No doubt that is one reason why Jesus is often seen as — and excoriated for — being in the company of sinners, even dining with them. He never gives up! And neither should we.

Reflect then on how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors when trying to understand his meaning about how we personally and the church should deal with even the most difficult sinners and offenders. Some people lose confidence in the ability of the church to heal and reform the wounds within the body of Christ, which it is. “Christ is my religion, the church is not,” one prominent political figure, a baptized Catholic, once told a journalist, who herself was lamenting in her column what she deemed a lack of catholicity in the Catholic Church that she wanted to belong to.

No doubt these words reflect the frustration and despondency of Catholics in all political camps who wish that “the Church” would call out a candidate or a party they deem wrong, misguided or even sinful. But to separate Christ from his church is to reject the very identity of Jesus himself. Like it or not, Jesus is one with his church, with all of its sinful members, though without sin himself. This is our clear teaching (cf. Eph. 1:23). Jesus is inseparable from his mystical body which, it is always true, stands in need of reform.

Irish author James Joyce described the Catholic Church as “Here Comes Everybody.” The Church is catholic or universal inasmuch as it is a beacon of hope to all sinners. In order to be this, its mission is to teach and preach the truth and condemn sin, even as it seeks the salvation of the sinner. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, even the lost one (Mt. 18: 12-14, Lk 5:3-7, Jn. 10:1-18). Many of us take comfort in contemplating this. Every one of us can, if we remember who we are.

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