Gospel Reflection for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dealing with our Offenders (from my book ‘A Shepherd’s Voice’, 2007)

What happens when someone offends you in a relationship? Our gospel today teaches us four ways to deal with persons who have done something harmful to us.

The first way is by direct confrontation. Jesus said: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves.” (Matthew 18:15) Since the transgression is between the two of you, it is logical that you deal with it yourselves. Many times, we resist directly confronting the person who hurt us because we are not in control of our angry emotions. We are afraid that during the moment of confrontation, we might inflict verbal or physical violence to each other. Instead of resolving the conflict, we might even jeopardize an opportunity for enlightenment about the situation and possible reconciliation. It is important that direct confrontation be done in a mature disposition. When we go to the person, it is vital that we do not accuse him; we do not point a finger! We go to him in the spirit of clarifying the circumstances surrounding the issue which offended us. We express what, and how, we felt about the matter. We allow the other person to clarify and explain what he said and did so as to understand where he was coming from. Usually, when a mature dialogue takes place between two parties, we create a healthy atmosphere of listening to each other. With this disposition, there is a greater percentage of acceptance from the person who was really at fault. In this light, Jesus tells us: “If he listens to you, you have won back your brother.” (Matthew 18:15) But what if he does not accept that he did something wrong to you?

The second way is fraternal correction with two or three witnesses. Jesus advised: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain a charge.” (Matthew 18:16) Sometimes, a person is not convinced about a negative feedback given to him when done by only one person. However, when two or three others give a similar feedback, the person may be led to think about the wrong he may have done. At first, he may be defensive about it; but when he is alone and reflects on the matter, he may gain insight about himself and realize how his attitude and behavior might have offended the person concerned. It is crucial that the person offended prepares his two or three witnesses before the actual moment of fraternal correction. They must be briefed that giving feedback to the person should not be accusative but rather constructive. Giving feedback must be done in an objective and non-threatening tone so that both parties involved become receptive to each other. Strong critical judgment should be avoided. Fraternal correction should be done to help the person grow and for reconciliation to take place. But what if he still doesn‘t accept that he did something to hurt you?

The third way is leveling off with the community. Jesus further asserted: “But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community.” (Matthew 18:17) The person being corrected may have strong defense mechanisms, and refuses to accept feedback from two or three testimonies. Resorting to the whole community strengthens the ground to prove a point to the person who seems blind to the reality that he has hurt someone. The logic is simple: one might not believe only a few witnesses; but if everyone is already telling this person the same thing about himself, then he is compelled to listen. Here, it appears that one is brought to court and judged by the community. However, leveling off with someone must be done in a loving way as in the case of the first two methods. Fraternal correction should be given by the community out of love: for the good of the person and for patching up relationships. Again, the whole community must be disposed to accept where the person is and how he may react negatively. In so doing, the community journeys with the person in the quest to correct what was done wrong and to help the persons concerned reconcile with each other. The community, then, becomes a potent instrument of reconciliation. But what if this method still doesn‘t work?

The fourth way is compassion. We have to read between the lines of Jesus‘ statement: “And if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) Initially, one might rush into thinking that the offender has become a hopeless case. In Jewish culture, during the time of Jesus, pagans and tax collectors were considered outcasts. They were categorized as sinners and rejected, especially by the righteous Pharisees and Scribes. But how did Jesus treat these so-called sinners? Remember Levi who became an apostle and Zaccheus who recognized the salvation he received from the Lord. Jesus went to pagan territory to proclaim the Good News. He reached out to unbelievers even though he felt, at times, that His mission was only for the Jews. Jesus was compassionate to tax collectors and pagans. The word compassion stems from two Latin terms: cum and passio: cum which means ‘with’ and passio which means ‘to suffer’. So compassion means ‘to suffer with’. The greater challenge is to show compassion to our offender. When someone fails to listen to us and accept his offenses, we should never abandon him; we must be patient enough to journey with him as we desire that he gains the maturity of self to realize and accept his shortcomings. This means that we must be willing ‘to suffer with’ him, that is, to undergo the struggle of understanding his immaturity even when it is rather difficult to bear. We should be willing to sacrifice our prejudices and biases against the person, hoping that the time will come when conversion and transformation will take place in his life. By our compassionate love for the person who has hurt us, we know that the road to forgiveness, reconciliation and healing will become a reality.

Let me end with words of wisdom from St. John Mary Vianney in dealing with our offenders: “The way to overcome the devil when he excites feelings of hatred for those who injure us is immediately to pray for their conversion.” (Ronald de Sola Chervin, Quotable Saints, p. 19, 1995)

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