“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 33:7-9

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. 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. 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.

Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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." Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to his disciples: "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. 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.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

When it comes to the question of culpability, Cain’s sarcastic reply to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” strikes us a note (Gen 4:9). All too often, like Cain, instead of self-examining, we engage more in self-defending when being blamed. Are we responsible for others’ faults? Are we their keepers? Is it wrong to turn a blind eye on sinful deeds? According to today’s scriptural readings, the answer is a “yes” when it comes to the question of God’s plan of salvation.

In the First Reading, God appoints a “watchman” to warn His rebellious people to repent. This is the task of the prophet. In warning the people, God also warns the prophet himself that if he fails to sound the alarm, then God will avenge the death of the people who has not been warned and make the prophet share in their sins. In the Gospel Reading, Jesus extends this responsibility to all the People of God. Just as He has spoken to Peter in regard to the authority of “binding and loosing”, He is addressing to all His disciples as well (cf Mt 16:19, 18:18). Through baptism, we become members of Christ’s mystical body which “participates in the three offices of Christ (priest, prophet and king) and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them” (CCC783). As salt of the earth and light of the world , it is the duty of every Christian to build up the Body of Christ and bring back sinners to the right path (rf Mt 5:13-16, Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12:27, Jas 5:20).

Jesus provides us with a three-steps process for leading back strayed sheep to the fold (rf Mt 18:10-14). Firstly, private reproof, then before witnesses and finally before the gathered assembly. Each step is an attempt to allow the offender to repent, reconcile and return to the community. To ignore or silently put up with the wrongdoings of the offender results in the same peril for both the offender and ourselves. However, we must have charity in our hearts when making corrections and rebukes. In the Second Reading, Paul explains clearly that “Love does no evil to the neighbour; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rm 13:10). Our admonition should not be out of anger or revenge and certainly not some kind of sanctimony but an exercise of love, hoping and aiming to restore the offender to his/her righteousness.

Finally, if we are unfortunately the offender, as in today’s Responsorial Psalm: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts”, we should not be obstinate and tenacious when
being reproached or reprimanded (Ps 95:8). Instead we should be humble, knowing that it is God’s approved way to save us through our brothers and sisters whose love for God has put them in the service of a “watchman”, helping others to walk again on the path of salvation. In the midst of life’s pitfalls, we are each others’ keepers.

Posted: September 10, 2017

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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