[HOMILY] True Friendship Requires Correction
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)
For much of the middle ages there was a very interesting tradition in the Papal Household. A single monk, known for his humble disposition, was chosen to stand silently in the presence of the Pope in the midst of all his activities for a year-in his meetings, audiences, or times of prayer (aside from confession of course). At the conclusion of that year, the monk would step out from the corner of the room, prostrate himself before the Holy Father in an act of reverence, then stand and proceed to reprimand the Holy father for all his sins; any acts of injustice, lack of piety, indifference to the poor, and abuses of power he had committed throughout the year prior. The Holy Father was to say nothing, to give no rebuttal, only to receive the correction in silence. The monk would then prostrate himself before the holy father again and proceed back to his monastery.
What a fascinating tradition! It created a way in which the vicar of Christ himself could receive a solid dose of humility when faced with an office so powerful and conducive to pride. A call to repentance for a person who, for so many different reasons, would otherwise be impossible to correct.
Even with the specific design of this process demanding that the monk perform this act, and demanding the Holy Father sit in silence to listen, we can all imagine the palpable tension that filled the room each year…
The fact is, none of us enjoy correcting those we respect. Often we enjoy critiquing and correcting those we don’t respect, or those who disagree with us, but we certainly avoid it when it concerns our loved ones.
Yet, as with the pope, this correction is essential! For guidance in such a touchy topic, we must look to the scripture readings, for they make a few important distinctions and give us a reliable guide.
Yet before even doing that, I think we need to look at why this is relevant, and why loving fraternal correction is so difficult in our culture, for otherwise I am answering a question none of you have asked. Our culture is obsessed with “dignity” and “rights.” These, strictly speaking, are two very good things to be obsessed with, and I am not complaining in the least. Yet even these two very good things, when miss-applied, can lead to problems.
Our culture would suggest that the rights and dignity of all individuals makes us infallible. Somehow, each of becomes an island which is unapproachable by any outside critique or correction. This, of course, is an impossible and contradictory idea of dignity, for we as Christians know that we are in some manner responsible for our brothers and sisters, that we cannot create our own moral code, or any sense of community or solidarity would crumble.
If, then, it is true that our dignity and rights do not exempts us from this “charitable correction,” what should it look like? This is where the scriptures are so helpful. Let us look to two very important passages in today’s readings to guide us here. First, the prophet Ezekiel tells us, “[If] you do not speak to dissuade the wicked from his way… I will hold you responsible for his death.” It is fascinating- and scary- that we can be held responsible for someone else’s sin! Obviously, we can see it is not universal, we cannot be responsible for everyone. Ezekiel is the “watchman” over the people of Israel- thus he has responsibility over them. So, we must ask ourselves- who are we responsible for? To whom does our authority extend? The clear and obvious example is the responsibility of parents over their children. A professor of mine once told me in a very serious tone, “Kirby, if your soul perishes, I may be somehow held responsible. If one of my children perishes, I tremble to think of what will happen to me.”
Most of us accepts parental authority, it is easy to see- but where else does our responsibility extend? Teachers- what of your students? Coaches- what of your players? Priest (me!)- what of your parish? What of our neighbors? What of our extended family (Which means for many of you, you’d be responsible for all of Butte)? The priest, by virtue of his office, bears the responsibility for his parish, and for me I bear in many respects those students at Butte Central as well. Yet, as we extend our vision, we must discern our responsibility, for it becomes murky.
Further, it is not clear when we have the right to call someone out, for none of us is a monk with the office of fraternally correcting those around annually. For guidance in this, we look to today’s gospel. Jesus tells his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” There are many important subtleties in this statement of Jesus- the first of which is sin. Notice Jesus does not tell us, “if your brother or sister offends you”… or … “if your brother or sister disagrees with you,” but very explicitly, if your brother sins against you. So, the first principle we must discern is our own feelings and prejudice in the situation. We must ask: has this person actually sinned, or have they merely injured my pride or self-esteem?
Next, Jesus tells us to correct the fault in person and alone. From this we gather a few important points. First, we must be absolutely sure, must strive with every fiber of our being, to correct those we love and respect with absolute humility. If I sense even an ounce of self-interest, or hatred, or envy in the desire to correct my brother or sister, I ought not to do it. We must not seek any gain in this!
Further, the second reading tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and this ought to be our guide in all correction and critique- we do it because we love one another. There is no other adequate reason to correct our friends than our desire for them to come to know Christ in a deeper way. This must always be the goal.
I remember in high school, when I was at the height of my worldly lifestyle, one of my closest friends sat me down and told me, very calmly, that my life was a wreck and I needed to change or I would destroy myself. I could see the pain it caused him to say it, but I still received it poorly and I hated him for some time. Nevertheless, I will never forget it and I will never be able to repay him for that courageous act of charity.
This is, admittedly, a difficult topic for so many of us because it hits so close to home. So many of us- including myself- are quick to correct those around us when they offend our sensibilities, but to remain silent concerning those things that really matter. This is partly a result of our pride; we are terrified of being corrected, so we hesitate to dole it out. I tend to assume the worst intentions when someone corrects me, for then it is easier to ignore the actual correction. In striving for humility, we ought to accept corrections and critiques graciously, examining ourselves afterward and trying to grow from it. This doesn’t mean we let ourselves be bullied, ignore that garbage- but it isn’t hard to know the difference there.
To rebuke our brother or sister is awkward and treacherous. In most cases, we ought to error on the part of silence. However, we must remember that we are a community, we live in solidarity, thus we are- to one degree or another- responsible for the sins of our brothers and sisters. Therefore, we must discern it carefully, strive for the humility of a 12th century monk. Correct everyone as if the one you are to rebuke is the Holy Father himself. Above all, we remember that love must guide us, for love is the fulfillment of the law!