23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
6th September 2020
Year A – Psalter week 3
If your brother listens to you, you have won back your brother.
Today’s first reading and gospel have the common theme of the duty to appeal to others, particularly those who are our brothers and sisters in the faith, when they stray from the Lord’s path. Being a publicly recognised prophet, Ezekiel knew the importance of his speaking out God’s word when it was placed upon his heart, even when it could bring him ridicule and rejection. If, upon receiving such words, he failed to warn his brother or sister to renounce their sin, then he knew that he would be held personally responsible by the Lord for that person’s death.
While we may not be in Ezekiel’s league when it comes to prophecy, we are nevertheless, as Christians, anointed as priests, prophets and kings through baptism. Speaking out prophetically, then, is a responsibility that we collectively carry. In fact, instructing and advising are spiritual works of mercy (see Catechism, par. 2447). While the Popes together with the bishops down the centuries have been invested with the gift to teach prophetically on matters of faith and morals, which we find in the official teaching of the church, we are all called to live our Christian lives according to that teaching and to speak out prophetically when it is ignored or comes under attack.
There is, of course, the question of personal freedom and conscience, and there may be some official church positions that we personally struggle with. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section dedicated to conscience which I encourage you to read (see paragraphs 1776 to 1802). It begins by explaining conscience as follows: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” It goes on to explain how conscience is a gift from God that helps us to remain on the right path, prompting us when we go wrong and inviting us to seek the love and mercy of God in those moments and to return to the right path.
The Catechism goes on to explain something that I believe is often overlooked in our present culture, and that is the need to inform our conscience, which is a lifelong task. It is possible to neglect the formation of our conscience and also to deaden it through sin and by repeatedly going against it. As the Catechism explains: “It can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (par. 1790-1791).
The following are examples of how we can neglect the formation of our Christian conscience: “ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity” (par. 1792). We are also often subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer our own judgment and to reject any authoritative teachings that may go against those personal judgements (cf. par. 1783). A particularly interesting point, I think, is the necessity for us to remain sufficiently present to ourselves in order to actually hear and follow the voice of conscience in the first place: “This requirement of ‘interiority’ is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection” (par. 1779).
So how do we form our conscience? Well, if we are to seek and know the heart and mind of Christ, we need first and foremost to be familiar with his own word, which is contained in the Scriptures. As St. Jerome once said, “Ignorance of scripture, is ignorance of Christ.” In order to understand the Word, we also need to pray for the light of the Holy Spirit who has inspired the Word, and to put the Word of God into practice in our daily lives of faith as we seek to love God and neighbour. As the Catechism puts it: “A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time “from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 5)” (Par. 1794). We are also “aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (Par. 1785).
By thus living our faith and continually informing our conscience as disciples of Jesus, we come to recognise more clearly what is, and what is not, of the Lord in our lives and in our world. As I heard it put very recently, “if you do not know the Lord, then you will not know what is not the Lord!” Without such knowledge, we end up making the same mistake as St. Peter in last Sunday’s gospel, when he went ahead of Jesus and tried to dissuade Him from the path to the cross. Jesus is then forced to say to us too: “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” (Matthew 16:23).
Even when we are following the Lord faithfully and obediently as his disciples, and may be in a position to see more clearly where our neighbour may be going wrong, we still need great humility and to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Also important is to remind ourselves of our own sinfulness and failures, and our need for the Lord’s love and mercy each day. Nevertheless, if the Lord can use us to speak His truth effectively to our neighbour, then we will be performing a great act of love towards them for which they may one day be eternally grateful: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Sunday Message and Look
Download this weeks Sunday Message and Look (for our younger parishioners) by clicking on the images, for all the readings for this week, as well as the prayers during mass and the usual weekly thoughts and reflections.
Your word is truth, O Lord: consecrate us in the truth.