|The Sánchez Archives
TWENTY THIRD SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
Every once in a while, the daily gloomy reporting of the worlds violence, wars, hatred and inhumanity is pierced by an account of selfless courage and altruism. One such account featured the heroism of Lenny Skutnik, an erstwhile meat-packer, house painter, factory worker and short-order cook.
A heavy storm had blanketed Washington D.C. on the afternoon of January 13, 1982. Skutnik was making his evening commute to his home in Virginia when Air Florida, Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River shortly after taking off from National Airport. Hundreds of horrified commuters stood on the rivers banks while rescue efforts were attempted by helicopter. When Skutnik made his way to the shore, he found the plane, partially submerged with several passengers clinging to the wreckage. Without hesitation, he jumped into the icy waters and managed to save one of the passengers, a woman. Seventy-eight others passengers perished. Later, when interviewed about his heroic efforts, Skutnik said simply, Nobody else was doing anything. It was the only way.
Similar accounts of heroism tell of people rushing into buildings, engulfed in fire, in order to save the life of another. One report told of a mother who repeatedly returned to her burning home, and although her injuries soon proved to be fatal ones, she succeeded in saving all six of her children.
Soldiers can recount comparable incidents of bravery. The Portland Oregonian newspaper carried this story from the Vietnam War. Several soldiers were together in a trench when a live grenade was thrown in among them. Within an instant, one soldier threw his body on the grenade and muffled the explosion which took his life, but saved all of the others with him. Even as I write these words, there are people risking their lives for others; rescuers are wading chest-deep in the alligator and snake infested muck of the Florida Everglades, searching for possible survivors of a recent plane crash
In each of these reports of courage and selflessness, the heroes and/or heroines have chosen to put themselves at risk for the well-being and safety of another. In a sense, believers are proferred a similar challenge in todays readings.
Both the first reading (Ezekiel) and the gospel (Matthew) are concerned with the responsibility each one of us has regarding the spiritual welfare and salvation of others. Ezekiel understood that his role as prophet required him to act as a sentinel, guarding others against behaviors which could result in their destruction. If he did not do his part in warning and pointing out the sin of his contemporaries, then he was to be held responsible for their deaths.
In the excerpt from todays gospel, the Matthean community has delineated the procedure which should be followed in order to rescue another from their sin and its consequences. Each step of the process is to be undertaken with the intention of saving the life of the sinner and restoring him/her to the community. Pauls moral exhortation to the Christians of Rome (second reading) reminds believers that mutual and self-giving love is to be the motivation which guides all rescue efforts, whether physical or spiritual.
With these thoughts in mind, perhaps more consideration could be given to the following: Which is easier? . . . to risk drowning in icy waters or to reach out to another who has strayed from the truth in order to guide them to a renewed integrity? Which is easier. . . to return repeatedly to a burning building or to point out to another the error of their ways? Which is easier. . . to allow ourselves to be blown to smithereens (from the Gaelic smidirin) in an explosion or to confront a recalcitrant person with his/her sinfulness. Which is easier. . . to enter a swamp filled with hungry predators or to lovingly warn another person that they have become lax in their commitment to Christ.
Even though the rescue of a person from sin appears to be less dramatic than saving someone from death by drowning, fire or explosion, it is nevertheless as important and has far more reaching consequences. Physical death, however tragic, is but a passage to eternal life but spiritual death which is caused by sin is an unending tragedy.
As companions of one another in the daily effort at discipleship, we will sometimes be called to engage in whatever heroic rescue efforts are necessary in order to safeguard the sanctity of others, to reconcile them to God and restore them to the life of the community.
E. L. Allen has suggested that this excerpt from Ezekiels oracles on responsibility (33:1-33) bears special significance for those who are called to pastor others in the faith. (Ezekiel, The Interpreters Bible, Abingdon Press, New York: 1956). While contemporary ministers might become thoroughly absorbed in the administrative and authoritative burdens of their service, their most significance and effective work for God is conducted in the sphere of personal relationships. This, said Allen, should rank first among the many claims pressed upon the pastor. Allen further admitted that such a use of time will not necessarily meet with the approval of the congregation. However, since he/she derives his/her office from God, so also does the pastor receive from God the criteria and values according to which he/she is to serve Gods people.
As prophet to his contemporaries during the Babylonian onslaught of Judah and the subsequent exile, Ezekiel exercised the role of pastor; he worked diligently to repair and sustain the covenant relationship which God extended to each of his people. By his own claim, Ezekiel began his prophetic pastorate amid the first wave of approximately 8000 Judean exiles in Babylon in 593 B.C.E.
Readers familiar with Ezekiel will recognize that this particular text is an apparent doublet to Ezekiel 3:16-21. However, as Lawrence Brodt (Ezekiel, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990) has noted, there are two notable differences between the doublets: (1) In todays reading the task of the watchman is set within the context of a time of war (see 33:2-6). There is no mention of war in Ezekiel 3:16-21. (2) In chapter 33, wherein the prophet is receiving a second commission the warning is to be extended only to the wicked. In his first commissioning in chapter 3, the prophet was sent to warn both the wicked and the righteous, who turn away from God. The reasons for these differences arise from the nature of the conditions being faced in chapter 33. Babylon was poised to destroy Jerusalem and even the righteous will not be spared. Had Ezekiels first warning (3:16-21) been heeded, it could have meant the difference between life and death, but now (Ezekiel 33), it is too late. The exile has begun, Jerusalem will topple; all anyone can do now is heed the prophets warning as a call to repentance and trust in the mercies of God.
Like Jeremiah (see commentary on first reading, Twenty Second Sunday Year A) who could not contain the word of God but had to speak it, regardless of the personal consequences, so also Ezekiel. The prophets compulsion to issue a saving warning to his contemporaries sprung from a sense of responsibility not only to God but to his brothers and sisters. His concern for their well-being and salvation would not permit Ezekiel to be silent. Indeed, as the text indicates, had he not acted as a sentinel intent upon rescuing others from the consequences of their sin, he would have been held culpable.
Understood is this light, then there would seem to be a greater heroism in restoring an errant person to God and to the community than in braving any sort of physical danger. Moreover, whereas no one would be culpable if they did not rush headlong into a fire or plunge to near death in an icy river, believers do have undeniable responsibility for rescuing one another from spiritual disaster. At times, this can be a more frightening prospect than a swampful of alligators.
American author, Madeleine LEngle once wrote, We have so much to be judged on when he comes, slums and battlefields and insane asylums, but these are the symptoms of our illness and the result of our failures in love. In a similar vein of thought, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. Aware that the failure to love others was at the heart of all human conflict, Paul challenged his readers to give the same consideration to the gospels call to love one another as they would give to any debt which they owed.
In the verses preceding todays reading, Paul had advised the believers in Rome to respect and obey those in authority; since all authority is derived from God, Christians should, in good conscience, be subject to their superiors. The apostle to the gentiles also advocated paying taxes, tolls, respect and honor to those to whom each of these is due (13:1-7). Having satisfied whatever debts he/she may owe as citizens of the world, Christians are further charged with the debt of mutual love.
Earlier in his letter, Paul had reminded his readers of the agape or totally selfless and other-centered love which God has for humanity (5:5,8; 8:35, 37, 39; 9:13, 25); he also described the love which human beings should have for God (8:28). At this point in his moral exhortation, he began to treat of the love which human persons are to give to one another (see also 12:9, 14:15). The terms owe and debt may seem out of place when speaking of love but these words were carried over from the preceding section of Romans wherein Paul wrote of just, civil debts like taxes, obedience, etc. As Joseph Fitzmyer has explained, love cannot be owed since it is to be freely offered. It is the open outward concern of one person for another that takes one out of oneself and does not depend on what the other has done or will do in return. (Spiritual Exercises Based On Pauls Epistle to the Romans, Paulist Press, New York: 1995).
When believers love one another with utter selflessness, then the law is fulfilled (vs. 8) Actually, if by law Paul was referencing the prescriptions ascribed to Moses, then the person who loves others with an agape love surpasses that law. However, if by law, Paul meant the great commandment which Jesus gave to his disciples, then those who love others are fulfilling their Christian mandate.
Paul went on to say that all the commandments are summed up in the challenge, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (vs. 9). The term summed up appears in only one other passage of the Christian scriptures where it describes all of Gods creative, redemptive and salvific activities as being summed up in the person and mission of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Just as all of Gods provident care for humankind and the created universe finds its meaning and completeness in Christ, so does every human interaction find its meaning and completeness in mutual love freely and boundlessly bestowed.
It is this quality of love which transforms enemies into friends and heals the failures which create wars, slums and battlefields. It is this quality of love which heroically reaches out to rescue others in danger of physical harm and spiritual death.
Among the preserved writings of the ancient Essenes (a sect of Palestinian Judaism) is a Manual of Discipline, the rules of which governed and safeguarded the integrity and holiness of the community. One section of the manual concerning communal correction reads as follows: They shall rebuke one another in truth, humility and charity. Let no one address his companion with anger, or ill-temper, or obduracy, or with envy prompted by the spirit of wickedness. Let him not hate him but let him rebuke him on the very same day, lest he incur guilt because of him. And furthermore, let no one accuse his companion before the congregation without having first admonished him in the presence of witnesses (1 QS 5:24-6:1). Similar guidelines regarding community discipline are found in the rabbinic writings. A consensus of scholars believes that the procedure outline by the Matthean community in todays gospel may have been influenced by these earlier sources.
Part of the lengthier ecclesial discourse (Matthew 18:1-19:1), this pericope affirmed the early churchs concern for the spiritual well-being of each of its members and specified that the responsibility for that well-being be shouldered by each believer. Notice the fact that this clearly delineated instruction was issued to the disciples (vs. 15). Whereas earlier in Matthews gospel, the authority for declaring what should be held bound and/or loosed was ascribed to Peter (16:19), in this pericope, the authority for binding and/or loosing is delegated to the church. John P. Meier has suggested that while the phrase in 16:19 referred primarily to Peters power to teach and solve moral questions for the whole church (my church), the phrase in 18:18 refers primarily to the local churchs power to admit or to exclude persons from the community (Matthew, Michael Glazier, Inc., Wilmington: 1980).
The first overture to a wrong-doer should be made personally and individually. Should that initial confrontation prove ineffective, then the person should be approached by at least two members of the community. No doubt, this part of the procedure reminded the Hebrew Christian members of the Matthean church of their Jewish traditions. According to the Deuteronomic authors, One witness alone shall not take the stand against a man in regard to any crime or any offense of which he may be guilty; a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses (19:15).
Christians of Hebrew origin would also have understood the significance of the saying of Jesus preserved in vv. 19-20. The rabbis (Mishna, Abot 3:2,6; 4:11) taught that when two or three people gathered to study the Torah or Law, the Shekinah or divine presence rested upon them. Shekinah was the term which described the cloud which settled on Sinai or over the Tent of Meeting to assure Israel of Gods presence. The promise of Jesus presence with those gathered in his name indicated to Matthews readers that Jesus person and mission had fulfilled and replaced the Torah and that being in Jesus presence is, indeed, an experience of Emmanuel, God-with-us (1:23).
As with any important undertaking, the process of communal correction (vv. 15-17) will, no doubt, be exercised more justly and mercifully when it is permeated by prayer and the accompanying divine presence. In fact, praying for those who have strayed from the truth should probably be the first (but not only) step in any spiritual rescue effort.
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