There is a story about St. Francis and a man who approached him about the issue of correcting erring and sinning brothers and sisters. The man said, “Bro Francis, I am in a quandary. In the Bible, it says we should rebuke sinners, but I see people sinning all the time. I don’t feel like I should go around rebuking everybody.”
St. Francis responded, “What you must do is live in such a way that your life rebukes the sinner. How you act will call others to repentance.”
The Gospel passage today is about fraternal correction as a Christian duty. While the shining example of a Christian is always the best way to lead others to God and to the right paths, this Gospel text also gives us a concrete manner of correcting erring brothers and sisters.
In general, what the four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John give us is a vision of the Kingdom of God. They give us inspirations, stories and directions about the pursuit of the Gospel and Kingdom values as exemplified by Jesus himself. However, seldom do they give us step-by-step procedures in addressing issues and problems in Christian life. But our Gospel passage today does precisely this: It gives us concrete steps to take with regards correcting erring brothers and sisters.
Fraternal correction is a deep-seated tradition that can be found in the life and ministry of Jesus and in the Gospels. Jesus Himself corrected and rebuked His disciples on certain occasions. Starting with the example and teachings of Jesus, the Church has taken fraternal correction not only as a duty of Christian justice but as a duty of Christian love.
St Ambrose of Milan had a great spiritual and moral influence on St. Augustine and his conversion. He must have practiced fraternal correction on St. Augustine for love of him. He testified to the importance of fraternal correction when he said: “If you discover some defect in a friend, correct him privately (…) For corrections do more good and are more profitable than friendship that keeps silent. If the friend is offended, correct him just the same, firmly and without fear, even though the correction tastes bitter to him. It is written in the Book of Proverbs that wounds from a true friend are preferable to kisses from flatterers (Prov. 27:6).”
St Augustine, for his part, must have recognized the value of fraternal correction that helped him in his own conversion process. Thus, he warned against the grave fault of omitting fraternal correction to one’s neighbor. He said, “You do worse by keeping silent than he does by sinning.”
In the Second Reading, the Prophet Ezekiel speaks of his divine appointment from the Lord to warn the people of Israel of their wicked ways and their need to change to avoid perishing (Ezek. 33:7-9). Correcting others lovingly and courageously is a divine imperative that can spell damnation or salvation.
St. Augustine emphasized that the only valid Christian motivation for fraternal correction is love, not revenge. He said: “We must correct out of love, not out of a desire to hurt, but with the loving intention of helping the person’s amendment. If we act like that, we will be fulfilling the commandment very well – ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.’ Why do you correct him? Because you are upset that he has offended you? God forbid. If you do it out of self-love, your action is worthless. If it is love that moves you, you are acting excellently.” Further, St. Augustine said, “You have to forget the hurt you have received, not the wound of your brother.”
Pope Benedict XVI said likewise: “This approach is called fraternal correction: it is not a reaction to injury suffered, but is moved by love for one’s brother.”
That love must be the sole motive for fraternal correction is given credence by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (Second Reading). St. Paul writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). In this line, to correct another person out of love is a fulfillment of the law.
I think we all agree that there is a need to fraternally correct erring brothers and sisters and we do this for their good and the good of the community and those affected by the wrongdoings and sins of others. But the big question is: How do we do fraternal correction?
St. Augustine wrestled with the issue of whether to correct sinners and heretics, and how to do so. He said: “It is a deep and difficult matter to estimate what each one can endure… And I doubt that many have become better because of impending punishment…. If you punish people, you may ruin them. If you leave them unpunished, you may ruin others. I admit that I make mistakes… …” (Letter 95.3).
The Gospel today clearly gives us practical steps for confronting and correcting an erring or sinning brother or sister.
First, we need to do one-on-one personal dialogue. We are to meet individually with an erring brother or sister and charitably and humbly point out the offense. If the brother or sister listens and repents, the matter is resolved.
Second, if one-on-one personal dialogue is unsuccessful, then we resort to the mediation of other well-meaning brothers and sisters. The Gospel says that we take with us one or two other members, perhaps of the family or the community. They are not there to condemn the erring brother or sister but to mediate, to help us convince the person and to serve as witnesses to the dialogue. Charitably and humbly and guided by the grace of the Lord, the smaller group is to make the needed fraternal correction.
Third, if the person still refuses to listen and change his behavior, then the matter is brought to a family and community dialogue or meeting. This gathering in love and humility and in the presence of the Lord is to confront the person and encourage him or her to repent.
Lastly, if all attempts still fail and the person does not listen and change and repent, the Gospel says that we should treat him as we should a Gentile or a tax collector.”
The first three steps might be easier to understand and accept. But how do we understand the last recourse of treating another as a Gentile or a tax collector when all other steps fail? Does it mean that we now cut our relationship with the person or dismiss and expel him or her from our family or community and treat him or her as a stranger?
The answers to these difficult questions lie in our understanding of the Gentiles and the tax collectors and how we should deal with them. The Jews abhorred them and disdained any contact with them. In contrast, Jesus reached out to them and pursued them. He showed to them the boundless and welcoming love of the Father.
At times, we can get fed up and we can reach dead-ends in our relationships with others, especially if they continue to be unrepentant and recalcitrant in their behaviors. We can even reach the point where we do no want to talk to them and we decide to have nothing to do with them. We decide to avoid interactions because it can be destructive for us and other concerned parties. Perhaps, there will even be times when we just have to part ways or to impose sanctions on others.
Still, the Christian attitude is not to completely close our hearts to them and to the grace of God. There is hope as long as the person is alive. The change may not take place now but it can take place some other time when the person finally accepts the grace of God in his heart. Even if we may have to part ways, we must forgive and not hold grudges. We must forgive by the grace of God, at least for our good if not for the good of the other party. What we cannot change or control, we must completely entrust to the merciful grace of God.
The injunctions of Jesus on binding and gathering in prayer must be seen in this direction. If all human efforts and even Christian steps fail, we are to continue to bind the offending brother and sister in the love and mercy of God. We must continue to resolve to pray for him, individually and as community. At times, there is nothing more humanly possible things that we can do except to pray for the person.
The Gospel passage today on fraternal correction, to be properly understood according to the mind and heart of Christ, must be taken with the other Gospel passages. Jesus in other Gospel passages talks about unlimited forgiveness of other people, about praying for and continuously doing good for our enemies.
The task of Christian fraternal correction is not easy. It is only possible with the grace of God and with a new vision of the Kingdom of God. It can only be embraced by those who decide to receive and live by the values of the Kingdom of God, values that are counter-cultural and do no take the prevalent attitudes ad practices as the norms. A true Christian, even in the midst of persecution and death, does not resort to an eye-to-an-eye or to a tooth-for-a-tooth principle. Evil, for a Christian disciple, can only be defeated with good.
We end with Fr. Herbert Smith, SJ’s “A Dozen Guidelines for Brotherly Correction.” The Guidelines say:
1. Unless you are a model correction taker, be slow to give it.
2. Correct like a friend and fellow sinner, not like an enemy.
3. Knowing how you resent unjust correction, never inflict it.
4. Harping on past faults is not correction but condemnation.
5. Know that love wins over better than an army of accusations.
6. Get help to correct when it is needed.
7. Frame the correction so it will heal and not wound further.
8. Decide first whether the person needs correction or help.
9. Correct infrequently and not only the greater failings.
10. Correction hurts, so don’t correct with a sledgehammer.
11. Think how prayerfully Mary would correct, and imitate her.
12. Put yourself in the culprit’s shoes and think about it. You may end up congratulating him for not being worse.