Who is in and who is out?
There are a lot of interesting dynamics as to why someone may end up outside of a group. Some people isolate themselves for all sorts of reasons: a feeling of inadequacy when comparing themselves with others; social anxiety; or maybe a loss of interest in the ideals of the group. Many times, however, it is the harsh reality of community that pushes a person along the road of exclusion.
The administrators of one of the WhatsApp groups, of which I am a part, have grown fond of removing people from the group for all sorts of infractions, the length of the expulsion depending on the gravity of the offence. Two or three members have become the ‘conscience’ of the group and in great measure define its character.
In the Gospel upon which we meditate today, Jesus shows himself very aware of this power of the two or three to shape the community. And Matthew, in echoing Jesus’ teaching, urges his church community to recognise the responsibility which comes with this power: a responsibility to seek out, to be patient, to respect and ultimately to love, because the person who offends me or whose public sin brings scandal to the community is a brother or sister.
In our church communities are we brothers and sisters? Do we share life in a deep and caring way that enables us to bare our weaknesses before others in trust? Have I shown myself a brother to the person who has been pushed away or who in some way has wronged me? Do I care enough to want to win him or her back?
As I reflect, the story of someone that I know comes to mind. This person was embarrassed by a church leader in a very public and harsh manner. He was told that if he were to return to that community, he would be forcibly removed. This all stemmed from a misunderstanding associated with a particular health condition that he lives with. His efforts to explain what had transpired were not entertained. He was forced out of church and was left a wounded man in search of healing.
When I met him he was in another parish community. I was particularly impressed at the way in which this person, who doesn’t fit the prototype of a ‘churchy’ individual, was so naturally integrated into parish life. In conversation he shared that what he had found was true family. He had found brothers and sisters who really accepted him, as scarred as he is by life. Their open arms have won him back to an experience of love in the Church. He has been freed.
Whether it is in our communities or in twos and threes or even one-on-one, our sin very often puts up walls, closes the gate on others and binds people up in their sin, shame and isolation. Thank God that in our Church many experience themselves loosed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, as our Gospel for today highlights, binding and setting loose is also the work of us all.
Matthew, as he speaks to a church community very conscious of Jewish-Gentile distinctions, points out to them Jesus’ instructions that they treat the most obstinate wrongdoer “like a pagan or a tax collector”. His directives sound harsh but not when considered in the light of the other examples he gives of how Jesus himself treats even these.
He shares a meal with them (Mt 9:10–14), something unthinkable to the Pharisees. He commends their great faith and cures their sick (Mt 8:6–13; 15:22–28). He even makes one of these His disciple (Mt 9:9). Jesus’ love reaches those whom the community put on the outside. He teaches us to do the same.
This kind of love is not easy because the barriers to embrace of the other are first put up in our hearts. Our prejudices, dislikes and hurts very often run deep. When in pain because of rejection or because one feels slighted, putting up a wall in one’s heart comes almost as a reflex, a defence mechanism of sorts.
The noblest of efforts to reach out and to mend wounds, when met with indifference or anger, can not only stop our attempts but sometimes harden our hearts. Jesus’ persistence begins to appear impractical, foolish or even impossible.
Here the Lord invites us not to go it alone. Our brothers and sisters can help us on the way of reconciliation. Most of all, we have the example of Jesus and His companionship as we reach out. He will give us grace to make our churches places of love, reconciliation and acceptance. And He will give us the strength to scale any wall between us (Ps 18:29). So, reach out and draw in!
The Gospel reflections for September are by four local seminarians.