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SEPTEMBER 4, 2011: TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Ezekiel 33-7-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

I recently received several emails from friends containing the same wire-service story about sayings people falsely attribute to Scripture. The biblical expert whose research prompted the story debunked everything from "Spare the rod, spoil the child!" to "A stitch in time saves nine!" But when it came to "God helps those who help themselves!" he made a very perceptive comment. "Anyone who knows the Bible would never claim such a statement is in there. It runs completely counter to everything the Bible teaches."

One need go no further than today's three readings to prove his point.

The authors of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures practice a faith which drives them to relate to others. They follow a God who's not only worried about those who cannot help themselves, but who also expects people of faith to share in that concern.

The command Yahweh gives Ezekiel in our first reading has become a classic formulation of our mutual frame of mind. "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."

No doubt there were many days the prophet would have preferred to stay home, curl up with a good scroll and let his fellow exiled Israelites figure out Yahweh's will by themselves. After all, when he did deliver God's word, he wasn't accepted with open arms. His concern for others created lots of problems for him.

Fortunately the fear of being hassled for carrying out God's will doesn't stop Paul from making certain the Christian community in Rome knows exactly what God wants them to do. "Brothers and sisters," he writes, "owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."

Because the Apostle imitates the dying and rising Jesus in his daily life, he, like Jesus, goes to the book of Leviticus to surface a quote which summarizes his other-centered lifestyle: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The reason is clear. "Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law."

It's within that context of love and concern that Matthew's Jesus tells us to get involved in a situation many of us would prefer to avoid. "If your brother or sister sins against you, go and tell them their fault between you and them alone." It's clear from what follows that the reason behind such a direct approach to evil isn't just a tool for promoting good communication between two individuals. It's also meant to guarantee that Christian communities avoid becoming dysfunctional entities. If the sinful individual refuses to alter his or her behavior, the whole church must be brought into the picture.

As part of a hierarchal structured institution, some of us might be amazed at the value Matthew's Jesus gives both to the whole church and to its individual members. All of us (not just our leaders) are empowered to "bind and loose," and the joint prayer of just two of us "shall be granted by (Jesus') heavenly Father."

But perhaps the most stunning statement about the community's importance is saved for last: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them!"

No wonder we're called to be concerned for all, especially the helpless. Our sacred authors presume each person is important enough to merit our concern. By relating with and to them we surface the risen Jesus.

It's a shame the whole church wasn't brought into the sexual abuse issue from the very beginning. Had everyone been permitted and expected to show concern for those helpless individuals who had been so badly hurt, both the pain and the scandal would have been drastically reduced.