Readings for the Sunday
By the way, I have to give credit to a deacon friend of mine for the idea I used as the hook in the homily. Nobody ever said homilies had to be original, I guess!
So here’s the situation. You all know that you’ve been there. You’re eating dinner with someone – family, friend, coworker – and everything is going well, but you say something funny, and the other person does a jolly, full-teeth-exposing smile, and – oh! the horror! – they have a massive piece of lettuce stuck in their teeth. So what do you do? Do you tell them? Do you hope their next glass of water will do the trick for you? Do you just ignore it because, after all, don’t we all have a piece of spiritual lettuce stuck in our spiritual teeth? What do we do?
Well, in short, Jesus is teaching us today – you tell them! But it almost sounds so authoritarian to us when he says that. I mean, is it my place to tell the person they’ve got lettuce in their teeth? We’re taught that tolerance is a great value, and one of the highest we can have! And indeed, Jesus seems to want us to care about tolerance quite a bit – but he wants even more for us to care about truth. Because this is about a whole lot more than lettuce. The reality is that some of the sins that Jesus and the disciples were concerned about, and the sins which you and I encounter every day out there, are real. Sin is real. It doesn’t sound nice, and makes us uncomfortable, but it’s real. It’s destructive. And it can truly, truly destroy people. And so, Jesus is giving you and I the responsibility to do everything we can to bring these people back to Jesus. This isn’t just to fulfill the demands of natural law, or to do what’s right to appease our conscience, but it’s out of concern for the other person. You wouldn’t want the person with lettuce in their teeth to be humiliated or chastised later, would you?
The reality of sin is something that has been pretty clearly accepted for hundreds of years, but in our own day, this sense of sin which would make us want to avoid offending God or each other has been eclipsed by a sense of relativism, where telling someone the truth might be offensive. Relativism is the belief that there is no right or wrong. The only thing that matters is how you feel – what each person thinks or feels is right or wrong is right or wrong for that person. And yes, this sounds like a good idea, it sounds tolerant, but there’s a couple things wrong with relativism. First, it’s illogical! Even the statement that nothing is universal is in itself a universal statement! But it’s also impractical. Imagine the things we might accept if we followed relativism. Atheism is just as true as Catholicism. The things that Hitler said were just as true as the things that Jesus said. The Cubs are just as good as the Cardinals!! Nobody in their right mind would accept these statements (at least nobody from St. Louis), but a person following relativism would have to. These ideas are at the root of a society which would try to teach us that things like pre-marital sex, abortion, cloning, or same-sex marriage are ok. These ideas are thrown out there in order to justify what some people have strong desires to do, and in the process, we throw out our moral standards. But that’s like saying that there’s no such thing as poison. Sure, it sounds great, and it puts us at ease, but it’s a dangerous statement that is ultimately wrong. And so Jesus reminds us of the reality of sin and of how destructive it is, and he challenges us to fight against it.
So how do we do this? Well, he gives us a few steps. First you have to talk to whoever the person is one on one, and in private. You patiently and caringly try to encourage the individuals to come back to Christ. But if that doesn’t work, you might have to involve some other parties, like friends or family. Only if the problem continues do you make it a public issue, and you only make it public so that others know not to follow the bad example.
Fraternal correction isn’t easy, especially when the issue is a little bigger than a piece of lettuce in the teeth. And if we’re really going to help someone fix some aspect of their lives to come closer to Christ, it requires a few things from us. First, we have to know the truth. We have to have a well-formed conscience which is ultimately informed by the Church’s teaching. It takes patience as well. Sometimes solving big personal problems in other individuals takes time. You might get yelled at a few times, or have the person not listen to you right away, but it’s important to be patient with the other person. It takes courage too! I was speaking with a young lady who goes to one of our local high schools, and she was telling me how afraid she was to present a project to her class about the truth of the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception. What kind of society do we live in where our youth have to be afraid for their reputations and friendships when they do reports for school? It takes courage to speak the truth, especially when it is truth nobody wants to hear. One big thing that we need when correcting others is charity – love. One of my pastoral counseling professors used to say that you can only challenge someone to the degree to which you have supported them. We are always called to preach the truth, but we do so in a way that has at its heart a love for the other person, and a concern for their well-being. Of course, fraternal correction also requires prayer. Many times, problems don’t get solved right away, especially when we have little control over how children or family members or friends live their lives, but we pray for others, that they might have a heart open to the truth that the Holy Spirit presents us with.
I’ll leave you to decide how you tell someone they have lettuce in their teeth, but it’s important that we take to heart Jesus’s words today, especially in speaking the truth to a society in such dire need of it. May we have the courage, the patience, the understanding, and the wisdom, to always speak the truth in our world, but to do so with love, just as Christ has called each of us to do.