The Word Embodied

Challenge in Community

Go and point out the fault. (Matthew 18:15).

As if particularly sensitive to the demands of Christian community life, the readings from the Lectionary’s Cycle A this month provide contrasting sets of virtues and vices that foster and destroy relationships. Willingness to communicate and forgive enhances a common life of faith. Jealousy and envy, as we will see in subsequent weeks, rip communities apart.

Community life, whether in a family, intentional grouping, religious congregation, or the church itself, is the great testing ground of faith. St. Teresa of Avila thought that relationships in community were often a greater indication of one’s relationship to God than the heights of mystical prayer.

An activist like Dorothy Day was wise enough to see that injustice and exploitation were as present in small service communities as in political empires.
And Jean Vanier, as committed to marginal people as anyone might be, has often observed that it takes greater charity and humility to get along with a co-laborer than with a handicapped stranger.

Paul reminds his Roman audience that love, tested in immediate relationship with our neighbor, is the fulfillment of all laws. Even dramatic sins of adultery, murder, and stealing are variations of the more domestic betrayals of deception, manipulation, and egotism.

In each case it is a lack of love, a harming of the neighbor, that occurs. This is why our one duty, our sole “debt,” is to love one another.

Today’s Gospel provides a practical scenario on community relations: 

“If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you. ... If he does not listen, summon another, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses.”

Only after these careful encounters is the conflict to be referred to the entire church. Then, if recalcitrance persists, there is separation.

Sounds simple enough.

The problem is, it depends upon behaviors that do not come easily. We don’t often enjoy directly confronting another person, especially someone with whom we are having difficulties.

Some families will go years before addressing a problem. Grudges or resentments within a community more often die with those who hold them rather than come to resolution in quiet conversation. Misdeeds of friends or relatives are usually discussed with anyone but the accused.

Encountering the truth with another person daunts us because it makes us face another being who cannot be reduced to our own desires or projections. We may try to make others a function of our egos, but it fails. Rather than enter the struggle, we ignore it.

If, however, we seriously love another person as an “other,” and not a mere instrument of our wills, we experience the kind of self-transcendence that is required in our relationship to God.

Is it any wonder, then, that what we bind and loose on earth is somehow bound and loosed eternally? Our human relationships mirror our relationship with God. Whenever we encounter each other—not only in prayer—Jesus is in our midst.

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson