23rd: Accountability to the Body of Christ
The first reading today from Ezekiel speaks about the responsibility that we have to each other. The Lord says that we are set as watchmen for his people. It is wrong for someone to ignore another person who is behaving improperly. There is an obligation to try to convince the other person to chose right over wrong. Of course, this is difficult because we can jeopardize our lives if we appoint ourselves as guardians of everyone else’s actions. For example, if you are in Walmart and come upon a young Mom with eighteen month old twins in a stroller and a four year old who doesn’t want to hold on to her hand, and you hear her yelling at her four year old, your life might be in jeopardy if you tell her that she should speak nicely to her children. At the very least, you probably would get hit in the face with a diaper bag. Actually, Ezekiel’s is not speaking about people in general. He is speaking about being a watchman for the community of Israel. His main point refers not as much to people we don’t know as to those we do know. This is even more difficult. If we learn that our friend or a member of our family is doing something immoral, and we don’t say anything, we are condoning their action. It takes a lot of courage to say to someone, “Look, I can’t agree with what you are doing, and I hope you reconsider your actions,” but Christianity does take courage.
The Gospel reading continues in this vein in what is often referred to as the Discourse on the Church. It speaks about dealing with someone who has offended you. It gives a set procedure: talk to the person about it. If this doesn’t work, bring two or three others to have a discussion about it. If this is not successful, then go before the community and discuss the matter. If the community agrees with you, and the person still continues to offend you, then he or she is no longer part of the community.
This sounds harsh, but it is better than our present system. Ideally, if we followed what the gospel suggests we would treat a situation like this: Let’s make believe your next door neighbor goes to the same Church as you. He even sings in the choir. He also really doesn’t like children, and is often grumpy even when they come to his door selling girl scout cookies or what have you. Well, you can live with that. What you can’t live with is when your 9 year old daughter tells you that Mr. Snodgrass called her a bad name after she tried to get your dog from his front lawn. So you go over to Snodgrass and you tell him that it is unacceptable for him to use bad language around your daughter and even more to direct it to her. You tell him that if something your children do upsets him that, he should just give you a call and you’ll take care of it. Snodgrass, now calls you a few choice ones. The next Sunday, there he is at Mass, singing in the choir, all holy and spiritual. A week or so later, your son’s football lands in his backyard. Your son, rings his doorbell and politely asks if he can get the football. Snodgrass is enraged and lets the boy know it. He also teaches him a few words you really didn’t want your son to learn. So, you call a few of the guys in the choir and you all go over to his house, and you say, “Listen, Snoddy, I know children can bother you, but you can’t be losing your temper with them and calling them names. We’re sure you work hard and have a bit of stress, but you have to learn how to control it.” Snodgrass’s reaction is even worst. But you let it go hoping he’ll reconsider his actions. Then there is a third incident, and again Snodgrass goes ballistic on the children. You and the other guys decide to ask Fr. Kevin to intervene. You were going to ask Fr. Joe, but he got wind of all this and moved to the next county. Anyway, after Mass, Fr. Kevin says to Snodgrass, “I heard that there are some problems between you and your neighbors. Everybody is here now. Let’s get together in my office and hash this out.” After everyone has their say, Fr. Kevin tells Snodgrass that he hopes he will do a better job controlling his temper. Sadly, Snodgrass tells everyone where to go and how to get there. The result is that Father has to say, “Look, you can’t be coming here, singing in the choir, acting all holy and then be verbally attacking little children. It’s wrong, and not the behavior we can condone among the members of our Church.” Maybe this will all lead to Snodgrass’s changing his life because he wants to be a true member of the Church.
That’s the way we should deal with the situation. But that isn’t what usually happens. Here is what usually happens: Snodgrass yells at your child, you tell him that if he does that again, you’ll pop him. He does it a second time, and your wife, to keep you out of jail, convinces you to call the police or a lawyer or both. The conflict between you could have led to Snodgrass considering his behavior in the light of his commitment to Christ. Instead, it just ends up in a legal battle.
The readings also tell us that we are members of a faith community and as such we are accountable to each other. Quite often, we miss this. We consider ourselves accountable only directly to God, and then convince ourselves that God understands the stress we have and will close an eye to our sins. We may convince ourselves, but we are assuming that God agrees with us. What we are overlooking is that God is present in the community. The Church is the Body of Christ. When we offend others, when we sin, we are sinning against the Body of Christ. If we hurt another person, we are offending Christ within that other person as well as offending the entire Christian community. If we claim we are Christian, we have a responsibility to all other Christians to behave in a Christian way. We are accountable to each other, and to all others in the Church.
Many of you have told me that you really felt your responsibility to others to act in a Christian way when you got married. Your wife, your husband, had a right to your respect, charity, patience and kindness. You have told me that you avoid the immorality of the world because you are accountable to your spouse. You who are married take care of yourselves physically, mentally and spiritually because you belong to each other. Others of you have told me that you really felt the depth of your responsibility to others when you had children. It is more than just caring for the children’s physical needs. You recognize that your children need parents who are serious about their faith and who live their faith. Your children have forced you to be better because you are accountable to Christ’s presence within them.
It is the same for all of us. Every one of us has an obligation to every other one to be the best person we can be. The Christian Community, the Church is our way to God. We are the Body of Christ. We are therefore accountable to each other for our actions. Some people think that their actions have no effect upon others. They think that what they may do privately, stays private. But when a person sins, even in a so called hidden manner, his loss of the presence of Christ effects the immediate Church community of his family and the entire Church community. Obviously, this is particularly crucial for priests and other leaders of the community. As a priest, I am accountable to you to strive to be the best Catholic, Christian and priest I can be. This is not an ideal. It is a responsibility. You deserve that I be accountable to you. I can’t take vacations from morality and then look you in the eye. I have hurt you, even if you do not know how. At the same time, I cannot function as a minister of a hypocritical community. You have an accountability to me as well as to all others to be striving to be a strong member of the Body of Christ. You don’t just need me. I need you. We need each other. That is what it means to be Church.
Many people will speak about having an accountability partner. Usually these people are dealing with an addiction. They meet regularly with their partner who challenges them to avoid the temptations that have destroyed them in the past. This all works because the person feels obligated to their accountability partner to be better. What the reading today are telling us is that as the Body of Christ, our accountability partner is the Presence of the Lord in the Community. When each of us come to a deeper sense of His Presence in each other, we all recognize our responsibility to the Lord to be the person He created us to be.
We come to Church every Sunday to form a community of prayer. No one of us can form a community alone. We need each other to form this community. We come and pray as a community to the One who is our head and our heart. And we ask Him at this and every Mass to protect us from the evils of the world, outside us and within us. We pray to God to bind us together into the community of love.