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Who is God's Watchman?

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By Marc Massery (Sep 8, 2017)
The readings for this 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time call us to admonish sinners, which may seem like a daunting task. How can God expect us sinners to correct others when we struggle ourselves to follow his commandments?

Though the readings this weekend include some harsh language from Christ in the book of Matthew and from God in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, in their broader context, these readings merely show us how to recognize the lies of Satan and help each other focus on living out the greatest commandment: To love our neighbors as ourselves.

In the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, God says that He can hold us accountable for the sins of others if we do not warn them about their iniquities. He says that we must "dissuade the wicked from his way" or else "the wicked shall die for his guilt, and [He] will hold [us] responsible for his death" (Ez 33:7-9). God has appointed us as "watch[men] for his people" (Ez 33:7). Watchmen were responsible for sounding their horns to warn the people of impending invasions. Once they heard the blast of the watchman's trumpet, the responsibility fell on them to heed the warning and either escape the attack or prepare for battle. But if the watchman saw an oncoming attack and did not warn the people, their blood would fall on his hands.

God calls us to be supernatural watchmen. Satan wages a constant spiritual battle against us and we must do our part to warn others of his attacks. This may seem like a tall task for us because after all, it is hard enough to monitor our own sinful habits. But the Gospel reading for this weekend confirms this teaching. Christ says that when someone sins against us, we must "tell him his fault" (Matt 18:15) and if he does not listen, we must go so far as to take another person with us as a witness, and admonish the sinner again. Though it may sound harsh, God can and will hold us responsible if we shirk this responsibility.

But how do we know when it the right time to sound the trumpet to warn others?

The second reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans addresses this issue. Paul begins by enumerating a few of the most important of the Ten Commandments. "You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet ..." (Rom 13:8). But in the end, he sums up all the commandments into one great saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Rom 13:9). If the greatest summation of the commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself, then the greatest sin is to show a lack of love for one's neighbor. Paul goes on to say, "Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom 13:10). If we see someone fall short of this call to love one's neighbor, that is the time that when we should blow the horn. And we must sound the trumpet out of a sense of mercy, rather than out of condemnation, because what kind of watchmen would we be if we were glad to see an invasion coming?

But even if we do blast the trumpet and try our best, in our compassion, to reconcile someone to God, what if this person still refuses to listen? According to Christ, we should "... treat him as [we] would a Gentile or a tax collector ..." (Matthew 18:17). The culture at that time disassociated from Gentiles and tax collectors, cutting them off from society. Christ, however, showed us that we should treat them with the utmost love and compassion. A scripture commentary on this passage by William Barclay explains what Christ really meant by this statement, rephrasing it in the following way:

"When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when he remains stubborn and obdurate, you may think that he is no better than a renegade tax-collector, or even a godless Gentile. Well, you may be right. But I have not found the tax-gatherers and the Gentiles hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, you may still win him, as I have done."

When we live a life of radical, self-giving love for our neighbors, we do not have room in our hearts to treat even the most hardened sinners with disdain. Even if someone sins against us repeatedly, sticking like a thorn in our side constantly, we must find a way to forgive this person, as Christ did and, above all, to pray for this person's conversion.

The Gospel, in fact, teaches that praying together is one of the greatest ways to share Christ's love with our neighbors and to help each other overcome Satan's attacks. The Gospel reading says, "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 I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). When we pray together in agreement with one another, we may not get whatever we want as if we were children asking for Christmas gifts from Santa Claus. But what God promises to always give us is even greater — the gift of faith to know that no matter what we ask for, whatever we end up receiving will be in accord with God's holy will, which is "love and mercy itself" (The Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 1264). Furthermore, when we come to pray together, we receive the very presence of love itself, Christ in our midst. His presence will make it difficult for any conflict that arises among us sinners to persist.

It's easier to love our neighbors when we recognize that we are praying to the same Father. When we make our petitions known to God together, our desires become each other's desires. And even if we don't receive exactly what we pray for, even if we end up struggling with this broken relationship, this debt, this addiction, this depression, this sin for years to come, we know that Christ promises to remain with us through it all as long as we continue to come together to pray. When we do, our hearts will become softened so that we can be open to hearing God's voice (Ps 95:8), over and above the battle cries of Satan. Softened by prayer, our hearts will know when and how to sound the horn of warning so that we can help others realize God's justice, but even more so, His compassion and mercy. Finally, on those days when Satan does attack, we will be able to fall back into formation and stand together in battle, "kneeling before the Lord who made us" (Ps 95:9) in prayer.

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