Gospel of the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Jesus said to His disciples: 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. 16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:15-20).
I – “Vis unita fortior”
The Gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time focuses on two distinct themes: fraternal correction and the power of communal prayer, with the spiritual presence of Our Lord and in unity of ideas with Him.
Although both are related to love of neighbour, they initially seem disconnected, as if the Evangelist were presenting a compilation of Jesus’ teachings one after the other, in an orderly fashion, but without any particular concern for linking them.
In reality, apart from the intention of the sacred writer, fraternal correction and the infallibility of communal prayer are closely associated. Without the former, authentic spiritual communion is impossible, since its absence ultimately prevents two or more persons from uniting in supplication for the same intention. Thus, one becomes the way and the preparation for the other.
The extraordinary superiority of the promise – “if two of you on earth are in agreement regarding anything you wish to request, it will be granted to you by My heavenly Father” – merits further discussion in order to equip the children of the Church Militant with an effective arm: the supplicant omnipotence born of authentic fraternal charity.
In the present circumstances, in which worldly powers are amassing their atomic arsenals and covertly warming up the engines of destructive missiles, we must prepare ourselves, remembering that no one is more powerful than the Lord God of hosts and those who trust Him. If we unite in the same intentions, our prayer will become invincible. In this way the renowned Latin adage will be fulfilled to the letter: vis unita fortior – united strength is stronger!
II – Goodness and Justice Embrace
Pope Benedict XV made a bold statement about Our Lady: “We do not cease to implore divine clemency, taking as our patron the Virgin Mother in particular, who, among the many glorious titles She has rightly received, counts that of Omnipotent Supplicant.”1 Although it may seem exaggerated or even misplaced, the statement is of impeccable theological accuracy. St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori explains it this way: “Since, the Mother then, should have the same power as the Son, rightly has Jesus who is omnipotent, made Mary also all-powerful. However, it is always true that where the Son is omnipotent by nature, the Mother is so by grace. But that She is so is evident from the fact that whatever the Mother asks, the Son grants.”2
Moreover, the title of Omnipotent Supplicant corresponds to Our Lady for her unique and profound participation in the work of Redemption, as the New Eve alongside the New Adam. Consequently, her maternal relationship with the Son of God and her mission as Co-redemptrix give her supplications the power to be invariably granted, as the episode of the Marriage at Cana brilliantly shows. (cf. Jn 2:1-11).
In this way, all of the gifts, prerogatives and privileges with which the Virgin of virgins has been honoured find reflection in the Holy Church, made in her image. And in today’s Gospel, Our Lord incontestably imparts this teaching regarding the omnipotence of prayer.
The oil of kindness penetrates everything
Jesus said to His disciples: 15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort rightly addresses Our Lord Jesus Christ as Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. He is, in Person, “the wisdom that comes from on high” described by St. James as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17). His divine way of thinking and acting is characterized by a luminous goodness, the sole purpose of which is to overcome sin and lead men along the paths of truth and beauty.
Thus, with the oil of kindness, the norms of fraternal correction instituted by Jesus tempered the rigidity of the ancient world, blighted by the law of talion. Revenge and blind justice were often the furrows through which flowed streams of an ill-controlled and frequently brutal anger.
The Prince of Peace inaugurated a new society built on loyal, frank, open-hearted love, and it was necessary to establish the means to resolve personal quarrels with a touch of gentleness non-existent until then. Calling one’s brother aside to discuss a fault he had committed became a favourable occasion for sealing mutual misunderstandings with reconciliation and forgiveness amid appropriate discretion.
The reward for fraternal correction
15b “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”
The reward of those who offer the offender the opportunity to reconcile with their brother in the tactful solitude of a conversation between two is portrayed with particular flair in Scripture: “My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:19-20).
But very many people live at the opposite end of the spectrum from this word. How frequently, out of misconceived tolerance, today’s Catholics keep silent. Parents waver before firmly and affectionately correcting their children; teachers endlessly compromise in face of rebellious and capricious attitudes of pupils; rulers omit censure of public sins and – oh, sorrow! – those marked with the priestly character let themselves be overcome by an inexplicable fear, granting implied and even explicit consent to depraved errors.
Is this how to obey this commandment of the Lord? What explanations will they tender the Supreme Judge on that direst of all days, the Day of Judgement?
The prophet Micah forcefully curses the teachers of Israel who, omitting due rebuke, lead those who listen to them onto the twisted paths of perdition: “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (3:5-7).
Nevertheless, help from on high will come to the faithful prophets, as Micah himself concludes in his discourse, affirming with fiery words: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (3:8).
A crystal-clear example of fraternal correction is found in Nathan’s words of execration and threat to David, culpable for betrayal, murder and adultery. Had it not been for the prophet’s courage in face of the one who could have instantly ordered him beheaded, there would have been neither the great king’s admirable compunction nor penitence, attitudes so well portrayed in Psalm 50 – the Miserere – which he wrote.
16 “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
In the law of love instituted by the Divine Master, patience towards others occupies a privileged place. We need only recall the Saviour’s untiring meekness towards the faults of His disciples. As St. Paul teaches, in full accord with the Gospel, charity is patient and does not work rashly or hastily, nor does it become angry or suspicious (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-5). For this reason, fraternal rebuke follows a well-defined process in order to prevent love from being injured, while preserving truth above all else.
How changed family, parish and diocesan life would if more frequent recourse was made to fraternal correction. How it would prevent so many criticisms, disagreements and disorders, not to mention the progress that souls would make thus motivated to seek perfection, overcoming the vices and defects which, in an overwhelming majority, paralyse even the finest works of the apostolate.
The evil of obstinacy
17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Patience has only one limit: obstinacy. When the heart of man, hardened by pride, becomes fixed in error and incapable of recognizing its own fault, then charity is no longer obliged. In the face of the steel wall erected by the guilty party, the pleas of love cease. The sentence of Our Lord is relentless: a kind of excommunication befalls those who refuse to open themselves to the truth.
In our own day there is an inexplicable repulsion for the holy firmness expressed in the Gospels and emphasized with brilliance in this verse. Rigour – sometimes confused with rigidity – is made a pernicious foe. Its detractors are the minstrels of a mercy understood not as the superabundant forgiveness of a grave transgression but as the harmlessness of sin. These cantors of pseudo-mercy, with unmistakable brush strokes of blasphemy, insinuate and even attribute a kind of sordid permissiveness to God Himself, who is supremely holy and just. The harsh words of St. Peter in his Epistle apply to them:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. […] But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, suffering wrong for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their dissipation, carousing with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! […] These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Pt 2:1-2, 12-14, 17-19).
What words from the lips of a Pope!
The infallibility of the Church
18 “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”
The Magisterium teaches us that the Church as a whole, presided over by her pastors, is infallible. In matters of faith and morals, this is due to a kind of supernatural sixth sense called the sensus fidelium, which endows the faithful with an inerrant intuition regarding what is to be believed.
Our Lord Himself promised that the Holy Spirit He would send would teach the disciples all truth (cf. Jn 16:13), thus preserving them from error, which is why the Mystical Body considered as a hierarchical and compact whole cannot err in the safekeeping and interpretation of Revelation.
It is striking, however, that the decision to relegate a member of the community who is obstinate in his sin to the category of pagan or public sinner is so solemnized. If we analyse it carefully, we will realize that Divine Wisdom wanted to leave rules of crystalline goodness and justice: mercy seeks out the sinner with admonition in private, followed by public confrontation in case of need, and a severe sentence for those who reject the opportunities offered brings the process to a close.
It is the same with the existence of men on earth. While they are on pilgrimage in this world, they can repent and change their lives. There are innumerable promptings of divine clemency in this regard.
Once a certain measure has been completed, however, justice takes over. With this we see the profound seriousness of our lives and the need to be humble and to love reproof in order to see the doors of conversion open before us and, at the end of our earthly journey, those of Heaven itself.
The omnipotence of true fraternal love
19 “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. 20For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
This passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel is of astonishing beauty and power. Our Lord’s covenant with His own acquires an indestructible solidity, and in it lies the immortality of the Church.
Firstly, because of the infallible audience granted by Jesus to those who, united among themselves and aiming at the same goals, pray in common agreement for a single intention. The good Father in Heaven will always hear these. Can there be greater assurance on earth? What do the destructive powers of atomic bombs mean in the face of such a promise? If Catholics knew how to use this spiritual weapon with absolute confidence, how many battles would Holy Church have won against her enemies!
Secondly, by the gift of the presence of Jesus Himself. In the Old Testament, God manifested Himself sensibly on exceptional and portentous occasions. On the mountain top Moses saw the glory of the Lord, which was also contemplated at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple; in the New Covenant it suffices for two or three to come together, in agreement, in His name to secure it.
To have the Divine Master in the midst of the faithful also assures their solidarity with the supplications presented to the Father, hence the pledge that they will find immutable benevolence. Faced with such a stunning revelation, we may appropriately ask ourselves: is there a religion or nation more powerful than the Church when it prays in this way?
III – True Omnipotence!
Fraternal correction is a bitter but highly beneficial remedy which can bear excellent fruit for the salvation of souls and, above all, for the solid constitution of the Church. Without it, charity is exposed to erosion caused by the many disagreements that are wont to appear in human coexistence. Recall, as an example, the dispute between Greek and Jewish widows in the first community, which gave rise to the institution of the diaconate (cf. Acts 6:1-6). The purpose of correction is, therefore, to establish concord and peace in the Church.
In this way its members, united around the ideal of their lives, can enjoy the presence of the Divine Master among them and present infallible supplications to the Father.
However, it could be asked: in what does union among Catholics consist? First, it is necessary that they agree on the truth to be believed. Communion of faith is essential for full concord; otherwise, the Church would fracture through successive implosions, as happened during of Luther’s pseudo-reformation. The heresiarch’s declaration of the free interpretation of the Bible was the seed of the most varied and cruel divisions, to the point that today there is practically no doctrinal conformity among the multiple and countless Protestant sects.
If confession of the same faith constitutes the basis of union among Catholics, it would be of no avail unless it were animated by charity, that is, by love of God above all things and of neighbour for His sake. Zeal for the Lord’s house, the supreme ideal of the Incarnate Word (cf. Jn 2:17), is the bond of perfection. The faithful who love Him with enthusiasm are primarily concerned with His glory. They long to see the petitions formulated in the Our Father realized in the context of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, of a society in the image of Heaven in which the Father’s will is done.
Catholics must love their neighbours with the commitment and the sacrificial spirit of Our Lord Himself: “even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). They must be ready to lay down their lives for the salvation of their brothers and sisters and, at the same time, to vigorously and tenaciously fight the enemies of salvation.
When they come together and, with vibrant faith, implore the Father for the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, they are always heard. It is time for faithful Catholics to gather around the altars from all over the world, confident that the Son of God presides over them, so that they may supplicate together with Him to the Eternal Father that good may triumph and evil be crushed. Through Mary they are to repeat the filial pleas presented by Her in the Magnificat, so that the proud be cast down from their thrones of smoke and the humble be exalted.
United in this way, the good will share in the omnipotence of the Trinity and for them nothing will be impossible. ◊
1 BENEDICT XV. Epistola Decessorem nostrum, 19/4/1915: AAS 7 (1915), 202.
2 ST. ALPHONSUS MARIA DE LIGOURI. Glórias de Maria. 22.ed. Aparecida: Santuário, 2008, p.152-153.