Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 4, 2011 – St. John’s
Nicholas Lash, one of the finest British theologians of this generation, has located “the heart and centre of the Gospel” in the assertion that “we have been made capable of friendship.” His use of the passive voice is deliberate: the capacity for friendship Christians understand to be God’s gift, through word and grace. Friendship, of course, has to be understood in the Christian sense and as, involving first of all, the possibility of friendship with God. The ancient philosopher Aristotle said that friendship was impossible between God and human beings, because friendship is a relationship among equals, and there is no equality between God and humans. Christianity, on the other hand, asserts that God has spanned the infinite gulf between Creator and creature and has become what we are so that we may become what he is. “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said, “for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15).
But the capacity for friendship given by the Gospel includes our relationship with our fellow human beings. The “we” in that sentence, “we have been made capable of friendship,” is, as Lash says, “in principle, entirely unrestricted.” That is, there are no people, and no categories of people, with whom we may not be in friendship, no boundaries we might not cross in order to overcome alienation and to recognize friends where boundaries would define enemies. The only proper response to the infinite–unbounded–love of God that erased the boundary between himself and us is a love that also refuses to be bounded. This is part of the meaning, surely, of St. Paul’s exhortation toward the end of his Epistle to the Romans: “Owe nothing to one another, except to love one another, for anyone who loves another has fulfilled the law…. Love is the fulfilment of the law.”
What love may require is made clear in today’s Gospel reading. It is part of a section in which St. Matthew has gathered materials about the life of the Church. He reports the sayings of Jesus about avoiding ambition, avoiding scandalizing the little ones, and about seeking out people who are lost, and today he speaks about fraternal correction. Note that in this case it is the person who has been offended who is urged to save his Christian brother. A process is outlined which begins with a private encounter, moves to involving two or three other members of the community, and ends with the judgment of the whole local community whose decision will be ratified by God. And this passage will be followed, as we will hear next Sunday, by the powerful reply to Peter’s inquiry, “How many times must I forgive a brother?”, and by the parable of the unmerciful servant.
This is not the first time forgiveness has been stressed in this Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out his priorities: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled withy your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy,’ but I say to you: Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.” The petition so familiar from the Lord’s Prayer is explained: “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” Matthew’s Gospel is the only one that quotes Jesus as saying that the blood of the eucharist will be “poured out in behalf of the many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Perhaps this stress on forgiveness and reconciliation is because this Gospel also indicates that the Church of this earth and time is a mixed body. It is a field where both wheat and weeds are growing, a net being drawn to the shore that includes good fish and bad, a wedding feast where not everyone is appropriately dressed. Although no other Gospel holds out so high an ideal of the Christian life, it is clear that Matthew does not expect that all or even most members of the Church will live up to that ideal. There will be plenty of failures, and, as St. Augustine often pointed out, the daily need for all and each of us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, our debts, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Whether it is we who must ask for forgiveness or we who, although offended, should not allow a fellow Christian to perish because of his sin against us, the imperative is there. We cannot be content with alienation, and we ought to be dedicated to restoring friendship–our friendship with God if we have fractured that, our friendship with one another in Christ if that has been endangered. It is a high ideal, no question about it, and rarely achieved. St. Augustine once remarked that of all the commandments of God the most difficult is that we love our enemies; but, he added, not only is it the most difficult, it is also the most wondrous.