After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, less than two weeks ago, the nation’s eyes (and those of much of the world) have been fixed on Hurricanes Irma, José, and Katia. Irma alone bids fare to cause the greatest havoc in US recorded history, surpassing Harvey and even Katrina. Reporters speak of “nature’s fury,” although it would not be amiss to remember “human negligence,” as decades of hesitation to curb carbon emissions undoubtedly contributed to the increase in both atmospheric and ocean temperatures that bear very greatly on the scope and intensity of hurricanes. Bickering about the science for political gain simply compounded the problem.
Attention to the storms, not to mention the devastating wildfires in the Pacific northwest and far west, as well as the storms and fires in other parts of the world, have at least temporarily diverted media attention from the ongoing drama of investigations into possible political malfeasance on the national, state, and local levels. For political storms also abound this year. And it is these that provide a kind of coincidental background for today’s liturgical readings.
In recent months, it seems that some inhabitants of the political arena seem to have developed a special interest in digging up dirt on other inhabitants, especially if they happen to be politicians, and most especially if they’re in the other party. It is unarguably true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” – an American slogan traceable to Thomas Charlton’s biography of General James Jackson in 1809. (No, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson did not coin the phrase.) But checking into suspected wrongdoing, while a civic responsibility of those charged with public order, does not simply extend to the domestic arena, where motives of rivalry, jealousy, and revenge can gravely disrupt the fabric of ordinary life.
One of the most difficult tasks in life (and love!) is pointing out someone’s faults. Given many different ways of approaching the same issue, it is fair to ask what should we do when we become aware that someone has done something wrong?
In law, there’s not too much of a problem. To conceal a crime by not reporting it to the police is itself a crime. It’s certainly not necessary to confront the criminal, or even someone who in a case of domestic violence has overstepped themselves. But we are morally obliged to report it. Unlike God, the legal authorities are kind enough to provide special phone numbers for that.
So why would someone want to confront another person with evidence they have committed a sin? There is really only one possible reason, one possible justification for a Christian. And the second reading and the gospel point it out very clearly. It’s love.
St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome is based solidly on what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus responded to a difficult heckler, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” [Matt 22: 37-40]. Paul simply says, “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
Now what’s interesting in today’s reading from Matthew is that you might expect Jesus to say, “If your brother should commit some sin against you, just forgive him.” But here he says, “Go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you.”
Notice that it is a wrong committed against you. Not some general wrong, like cheating on income tax or not voting. This is a special case that had to be faced in the early Christian community, which like any other, had conflicts of interest and spite and people getting out of sorts with one another. In Matthew’s community, this is the way they remembered Jesus telling them to handle such disputes. It ends with a little twist, based on the Jewish legal tradition that two witnesses had to agree on any charge brought against someone. Jesus moves that to a consideration of just two Christians united in his name about anything at all. And where they are genuinely united in his name, he is present. Jesus is the third witness: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”.
Here Jesus is alluding to a Rabbinic teaching from the Mishnah, the ancient Jewish commentary on scripture, in the words of Rabbi Chanina: “Two who sit together and there are words of Torah between them, the Shekinah [Divine Presence] rests with them ” (Pirqe Aboth 3:3).
The prophetic stance of correction is still part of the spiritual life for Christians, especially for parents, but also for teachers, and husbands and wives, and anyone who truly cares for the moral and spiritual well-being of others. We are responsible for each other. That does not give us the liberty to go around fault-finding, shaming and blaming in public, which will certainly not win us many friends or influence anybody for long. The art of pointing the finger is to make sure that it isn’t loaded – bearing in mind that we are sinners just like anyone else, and far from perfect. But when someone has done something manifestly wrong and it concerns us (and especially others), Jesus says that we must bring it to light. Not the public limelight, but the light of truth and love.
And that’s the difference between Christian responsibility and being a “journalistic investigator” or simply a “busybody.”
So what are we to make of constant digging into every aspect of a celebrity’s or politician’s past, much less our neighbors’? Should we go looking under rocks to dig up what dirt we can find on each other? Should we revel in disclosures of wrong-doing or shameful misdeeds of the past? Should we glory in the belief that we, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, “are not like the rest of men”? [Luke 18:11].
Not according to Paul: “Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.” Let us go, then, in peace and love. We have some work to do.