September 4, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Ezekiel 33:7-9) Reading II (Romans 13:8-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 18:15-20)
In the first reading today, God, speaking to the prophet Ezekiel, says to him, Son of man, I have made you the watchman over Israel. And He goes on to tell him, If I tell you to speak to the wicked and you refuse to do so and he dies, I am going to hold you responsible. But if you speak to the wicked to try to turn him from his evil ways and he refuses then he will be responsible for his own death. That, in a nutshell, is really the prophetic vocation. Most people think that a prophet is somebody who predicts the future. A prophet actually is a person who speaks to the people God’s will for them. If this is somebody who hears the Word of God, his call is to speak to the people, whether that is to present something that is good about what God is going to do for blessing the people, whether that is to call them to repentance or to conversion, or whether that is to predict something of the future that God might show them. But primarily the prophetic vocation is to call people to conversion.
Now you might be sitting back right about now saying, “Thanks be to God, He hasn’t called me to do be a prophet!” Wrong. Each and every one of us because of our baptism is priest, prophet, and king. So each one of us shares in the prophetic office. Maybe you do not have to stand up here in the pulpit and try to call people to repentance and conversion, but each one of us in our own vocation and in our own state in life is called to do exactly that. Within the family, it is incumbent upon the married couple and particularly upon the husband and the father – who is to be the spiritual director and the spiritual head of the family – to make sure that you are calling your family to prayer, that you are pointing out the areas where people need work, that is, where they can develop virtue to help them in their areas of weakness, to point out where their faults are, and to help them to be able to grow.
All of this, of course, must be done in charity. It is very easy for us to nag people. It is very easy for us to beat people over the head, to belittle them, to ridicule them, and so on. That is not what we are talking about. Instead, what we need to do is exhort people in love, to preach the truth in love. It is for us, then, to help other people to grow. It is to make points of constructive criticism, not ridicule. It is to build up, not tear down. Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians that we are to say only the good things that people need to hear, things that are going to edify them. All you need to do is look over your day and ask yourself, “How much comes out of my mouth that is really edifying to people?” Probably not a whole lot. We realize then that much of what we do is not done in love.
Saint Paul makes the point perfectly clear in the second reading today. He goes through the commandments, particularly the latter seven, and he says, What you recognize in all of these things is that the law can be summed up in one easy statement: to love your neighbor as yourself. The first three commandments are summed up in simply “love God.” The second seven are summed up in “love your neighbor,” because if we love we will never do anything that would violate another person; which is why the correction must be done in charity, not in anger, not in any kind of pride or arrogance, but only out of charity for the good of the other person.
A married couple on the day that they get married makes a vow to love one another. Once again, in love you are to help one another to grow and to become saints, to admonish one another, but also to exhort one another and to encourage one another. So, too, with your children. And because each one has a different personality, you have to then adjust the manner in which you bring the points across for the personality of that child so that the way you are presenting things is going to be what will be truly the best for that child so that person can hear in the way that they will be able to accept it the most easily. That is the prophetic office to which each of us has been called.
Now if we take this a step further, Saint Paul talks about the various points of love of neighbor, and we have to look at that love of neighbor. It starts right in the family, as we have been talking about, but sometimes of course we remember that it is the very people right within our own families who are sometimes the most difficult for us to love. So we need to look at the way we are treating the other people right around us. For the young people, how are you treating your brothers and sisters? Do you treat them with the greatest respect and charity? Or are you fighting with them, arguing with them, trying to be mean to them, finding ways of getting even with them? That is not the way to treat your siblings. We are to love them. To love them does not mean you are gushing all over them; it means you treat them in a way that is truly the best. I suspect, for most of us, we can look at it and say, “I don’t always treat the people in my family in the way that’s the best.” Husbands and wives need to look at that same point.
But then we need to look at others as well. When we put it into the context of the Gospel today, Our Lord tells us that if somebody wrongs you, go and talk to that person but keep it between the two of you. How often does that happen? Not very often. We will talk about it to everyone else – except the person who we really need to talk to about it. We gossip. We slander. We detract. We calumnize. All of these things are negative and they are all sinful. Our Lord tells us that we are to go and talk to the person who wronged us and try to reconcile things. He says that if that does not work then bring two or three witnesses. Again, it is maintaining a small circle.
Now it may be that there are times when something happens and you do not have the opportunity to talk to the person, or maybe you have tried before and it has not worked, so you realize that given the circumstances it may not be real prudent to talk to the person because they will only make matters worse because there is already some tension between the two of you. Maybe there is somebody you do need to talk to just to get it off your chest. Then you need a confidante. You do not need to look at your phone call list and call everybody on the list and tell them all the bad things that just happened to you. It is not necessary. If you need a confidante, that is fine. You can talk to a person, but do not be spreading it all over the place. And you need to make sure that the person you are talking to is somebody who is not going to be spreading it all over the place, somebody who can remain confidential, somebody you can trust, and somebody who is prudent; but also somebody who is going to help you to be able to forgive and to be able to let go of the frustration and the anger and the hurt, not somebody who is going to encourage you toward hatred and getting even. The point is we have to grow in virtue.
Another thing we all need to look at is the passive-aggressive stuff. That is something that has become quite popular. It is a way of getting even. It is a way of exerting some kind of selfish power over somebody else by making their life miserable. That, again, is not charity. So we need very, very seriously to look at these various things. Love of neighbor, again, means doing what is best. It is not just the next-door neighbor or the person up the block. For the kids, as school starts, that means the other kids in your class. How do you treat them out on the playground? How do you treat them in the classroom? Do you include them in the various things you are going to do? Or do you exclude them because maybe they are not as good at this particular sport; or, “They’re weird, so we don’t want them being part of what we’re doing;” or, “We don’t like them this week, so therefore they’re not our friend today. Yesterday they were, tomorrow they might be, but today they’re not.” All of those kinds of things are wrong.
So, too, for us as adults. We need to set the tone and give the example to the young people. How are we treating others? Do they see an example of love, of true charity within us in the way that we speak about others, in the way that we treat others, in our approach toward others? They need to see it first and foremost right within the family, the neighbor who is closest. But they also need to see it in the way we treat others and the way we speak about others so that what we are doing is truly seeking to build one another up, not to tear one another down. That is the call that each one of us has been given. As Saint Paul says, the whole law can be summed up in one easy statement – to love your neighbor as yourself – because love, he says, never wrongs the neighbor. How many things do we do wrong in our thoughts, in our words, in our actions every single day? Those are the things we have to be working on. And among one another, when we see that happening, we need to be able to point it out in charity, to call the person to conversion, to call the person to repentance, to call the person to greater virtue and holiness.
That is the prophetic task to which each of us has been called, to be the watchman for the family, to be the watchman for the parish (for the priests), to be the watchman for the diocese (for a bishop), to be the watchman for the world (for our Holy Father). God, when chastising the priests for not doing what they were supposed to do and not calling the people to conversion and holiness, called them “dumb dogs,” dogs that do not bark. What good is it to have a watchdog if it does not bark? Well, God has set up the bishops and the priests to be watchmen. The word bishop actually means “a supervisor, an overseer,” one who is to be leading and calling people to repentance and to be exhorting them to holiness. So, too ,a priest. So, too, a parent and a spouse within a family.
Again, especially the father of the family. It is a tragedy that in most families if there is any prayer going on at all it is up to the mother to call everybody to prayer. In some families, if there is any discipline it is for the mother to do. If there is any correction, it is for the mother to do. That is wrong. The father is the one who is the spiritual head of the family. He is to call his family to prayer. He is to set the tone and the example. He is to be the spiritual director, to be able to direct, to lead, to guide, and to be able to help his family to become saints. That does not, of course, exclude the wife and mother from her tasks of what she is to do in this way, because she is to help her husband, pointing out his faults and helping him to grow in holiness as well, the two working together to build one another up and to build up their family. But the husband is to be the head. So, gentlemen, you need to ask yourself, “Am I doing that?” Sitting in front of the TV is not going to be a good spiritual direction for your family. It is to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is to bring your family to prayer. It is to call them to greater holiness. That is what God is asking from each one of us. You have been made the watchman for your family, for your spouse, for your children. If you do not call them to repentance and to conversion and to holiness, God is going to hold you responsible for that, just as He will the priests who do not call the parish, and as He will the bishop who does not call his diocese. So, too, He will hold fathers responsible for what happens in the family if they are not fulfilling their task.
We need to take this task very seriously. Each and every one of us has been called to the prophetic vocation in baptism and has been given a position of authority within a family or within the Church, to be able to live out the vocation and the state in life to which God has called us and to be able to do exactly what we are called to do, to be able to teach, to correct, to exhort with the Word of God, and to live the truth in love – because love never wrongs the neighbor.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.