Today's Mass readings can be found: [HERE]
Our readings today speak to us on the theme of fraternal correction. Fraternal correction refers to that act of admonishing one’s neighbor, with the purpose of reforming that person.
Christ, in our gospel, gives us a sense of the why and how of fraternal correction. Why should I correct my brother? How do I correct a brother?
The why of fraternal correction is very simple; we do it to save that person.
Imagine a child playing on a street, unaware of a car that is quickly approaching him. From a distance, his mother sees the car, and screams as loudly as she can in order to get his attention. However angry she might seem in that moment, or however hysterical she may appear to her neighbors, her actions are necessary and justified. She sees dangers others fail to see, and she will do anything to save her child. There's no time to waste!
We understand this with regard to physical danger. We're also called to do it with regard to spiritual danger. The disciple often sees spiritual dangers that go beneath the radar of many others. Like the mother that frantically desires to warn her child of an oncoming vehicle, the disciple also must act as quickly and single-mindedly to warn others of imminent spiritual death. However desperate the disciple may come across to others, his urgent call to repentance is also necessary and justified. He must do anything to save others from spiritual dangers that only he can see. There's no time to waste!
The Lord demands it: 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.
Jesus desires our eternal salvation. It was for this reason that he came down from heaven: For our sake and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, as we proclaim in our creed. As it is for the Master, so it is for the disciple. The disciple must also greatly desire the eternal salvation of others.
After the question of why, I must ask myself the question of how? How do I go about correctly another person?
Each human interaction is new and unique encounter, but there is a certain element required when making any sort of fraternal correction. Namely, Jesus Christ must be present.
Notice how our gospel passage ends today: "... Where two are three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." That's the overall context of the guidance for fraternal correction given to us by our Lord.
Jesus said: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone." If this is a fellow disciple who is capable of invoking our Lord, then there's a good chance the issue in question can be resolved then and there. You and your fellow disciple make up the "two" gathered in the name of Jesus; and Jesus will certainly be there your midst, as you both call to him in prayer to guide your discussion and grant you wisdom.
If that other person's heart is closed, then others will need to be called, so that Christ's presence can be invoked. If that small group intercession is insufficient, then the Church, which has received from Christ the power to bind and loose, may be involved and pronounce judgement on the case.
A few other things should be noted as it relates to the how of fraternal correction:
1) Notice how Jesus speaks of "every fact [being] established on the testimony of two or three witnesses". These increasingly larger circles of correction are for the sake of objective truth; because my own subjective perceptions, intuitions, or reasoning could be wrong. Fraternal correction is about objective fact, not subjective feeling.
2) We are called to be credible witnesses to the truth. Christ often criticized scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”, says the Lord.
To quote Pope Saint Gregory the Great, “Doctrine loses credibility when conscience tethers the tongue.” How can I advise another person, if my own conscience robs me of the power of conviction? We've already experienced the difficulty of defending the Church and her teachings when her credibility is questioned (whether justly or unjustly).
3) The acceptance of vulnerability:
Despite attacks on our credibility (whether justified or not), we must continue to make every effort at fraternally correcting others, as a situation permits. Once again, it is to save that other person from eternal damnation, and there is no time to waste.
From a certain perspective, it can almost be more heroic to fraternally correct another person when one is imperfect oneself. It would be easier to correct another person if one were without fault. But if someone were imperfect, then calling another to repentance opens one up to the charge of hypocrisy. "Physician, heal thyself!" As the saying goes.
It can be tempting to remain silent when cognizant of our own sins and failings. We make ourselves vulnerable when we call others to a perfection that yet escapes us. It is a cross of our own making that we embrace when we venture to fraternally correct others from a place of personal imperfection. But we nevertheless must embrace it. Yes, we can be labeled hypocrite and worse, but the salvation of souls is on the line.
Jesus himself made himself vulnerable for our salvation. His vulnerability was not due to his sins (he is without sin), but due to ours. If he can bear the cross made of our sins, certainly we ought to share in the burden to the degree we can.
4) The Cross:
Incidentally, perfect fraternal correction was revealed on the Cross. On the Cross, the revelation of all moral evil and all moral perfection were united. On the Cross, the grim reality of the murder of the Holy One of God was nevertheless an appeal to repentance.
Christ called me to repentance through the Cross which he freely embraced. If I truly am a disciple of Christ, can my appeal to correct a brother be any different? What is the particular Cross that I must embrace in order to correct a brother? Is the love that I have for my brother revealed in the Cross that I bear for him? If fraternal correction does not lead me to my own Crucifixion, then I’m likely doing it wrong.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Pieta (1876) [from Wikimedia Commons]