Sunday, September 10, 2017

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Many people,
of various political persuasions,
love participating in protests:
the exhilaration that comes
with marching in the streets
and speaking truth to power;
the deep sense of solidarity
of a people united
in standing up for what is right
and holding evil-doers accountable.

I am not one of those people.

While I have done my share of marching—
protesting wars and police brutality,
advocating for nuclear arms reduction
and a more just economic system—
I can’t say that I have ever enjoyed it all that much.
I am the type of person who can’t help wondering,
even as I march—especially as I march—
whether all this marching is really going anywhere,
if power listens when you speak truth to it,
if the people united will really never be defeated.
I look around at the signs that others carry
and say to myself,
“I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment.”
I join in chanting slogans,
while at the same time thinking, “Well, you know,
the issue is really a bit more complicated than this.”

And yet our Scriptures today seem to say
that when you see wrong being done,
when you see people separating themselves
from God’s love by their evil actions,
you have a moral obligation to raise your voice,
to call them to repentance and conversion.
God tells the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading
that he must “speak out
to dissuade the wicked from his way,”
and Jesus in our Gospel reading confers on the Church
the power to “bind and loose,”
the obligation to exercise judgement
and to hold people morally accountable
for their actions.
Our Scriptures recognize
that speaking out
may or may not prove to be effective
in changing someone’s behavior,
but regardless of its effectiveness
we still have a moral obligation to speak,
we cannot keep the truth hidden
when it is under attack,
for if we do it is we who will be judged,
it is we who will be held accountable
for the evil we did not protest.

This past week the Catholic bishops of the United States,
fulfilling their role as successors to the apostles—
the role of binding and loosing,
of holding morally accountable—
issued a statement
in response to President Trump’s cancelation
of the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
This Obama-era policy allowed people who were
brought illegally to the United States as children
to remain in the country and to obtain work permits,
rather than being deported back
to countries of which they often have no memory,
and whose language they might not even speak.
The bishops, in their statement,
call the cancellation of this policy “reprehensible”
and say that such action represents
“a heartbreaking moment in our history
that shows the absence of mercy and good will,
and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Depending on the issue,
some people on both the political left
and the political right
get annoyed
when the bishops do this sort of thing,
saying that the bishops are meddling in politics—
that they should stick to religion and the Bible
and leave politics to the politicians.
But it is precisely our religion that compels us to speak up.
It is our sacred Scriptures that tells us that all people
are created in the image and likeness of God;
it is our sacred Scriptures that command us,
“You shall treat the alien who resides with you
no differently than the natives born among you” (Leviticus 19:34);
it is Jesus Christ himself who says to us,
“I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome…
I say to you, what you did not do
for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:42-43, 45).
In speaking out, the bishops
are simply obeying God’s command
to stand up for the weak and defend the defenseless,
to welcome Christ in welcoming the stranger,
to call the wandering to repentance.
Just as when they advocate for the unborn or the elderly,
just as when they denounce racism or exploitation of the poor,
they are continuing the apostolic tradition
of prophetic protest against evil,
of binding and loosing and holding accountable.

You may be one of those people who, like me,
find yourself in the midst of such protest
saying, “I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment,”
or “well, you know, the issue
is really a bit more complicated than this.”
And it is true,
the details of immigration law and policy
are incredibly complicated.
But the heart of the Gospel is not complicated:
“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This law of love is simple, but it is not easy;
it demands that we come to see the world
through the eyes of Christ,
who fearlessly spoke the truth
and who laid down his life
out of love for us sinners;
it demands that we ourselves
love one another as he has loved us.
We love the oppressed
when we speak up
to denounce their oppression;
we love the oppressor
when we call them
to repentance and conversion;
we love the truth itself
when we refuse to let it be hidden
and give our lives to its service.