Joseph G. Ryan, O.S.A.
Ez 33: 7-9
Ps 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Rom 13: 8-10
Mt 18: 15-20
New York Story: A Second Chance
Many years ago, during my first assignment at St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish in Queens, New York, I served on a clergy panel for a program called second chance.
The second chance program was established by the Queens County district attorney’s office. The program was designed to give non-judicial sentences, like community service, for first offenders in order to keep them out of the prison at Rikers Island.
Each day, a panel of three priests or women religious would interview the defendants to assess their willingness not to offend again, and assign them community service like collecting the trash at Flushing Meadow Park, the former World’s Fair ground, or helping out in a city hospital.
Most of the defendants were repentant, and were given ten to twenty hours of community service and sent on their way.
If they performed the community service, their charges for their crime would be dismissed.
Then there were the hard cases, like auto theft. The prosecutor, John Devlin, would join our session and confront the offender by saying, “This is not the first time you stole a car–this is the first time you got caught!” in the hope of that the accused criminal would admit his crime.
We see the heritage of the response from John Devlin the prosecutor in the reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and if you fail to speak out to dissuade the wicked from his wicked ways, he shall die, and I will hold you, Ezekiel, responsible for his death.”
Yet the Lord says to Ezekiel, “If you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, he shall die for his guilt and you shall save yourself.”
God is practicing what we would call today “tough love” for the sinner. It is Ezekiel’s responsibility as a prophet to help people to become accountable for their wrongdoing and thus turn them back to the path of righteousness so that they are saved from the dire consequences of their sins.
So the prophet had the role of one who helps people to repent of their sinfulness before they experienced divine punishment.
In the gospel story today, we encounter the problem of the presence of sin within the early Christian community.
How did Jesus counsel his disciples on how to deal with those who were wrongdoers?
Jesus’ advice is more gentle than the wrath of God promised in Hebrew Scripture.
First, tell the offender of his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you and repents, you have won your brother over.
If he does not repent, you should confront him in the presence of two or three witnesses, “so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
If he won’t listen to them tell it to the church, and if he won't listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector, in other words, cast him out into the darkness!
What the gospel reveals to us is that the best way to deal with sinfulness is to deal with it privately if possible and keep the sin of the offender private.
The gospel talks about the authority to bind and loose, a reference to our present-day sacrament of reconciliation, that allows us to heal the effects of sin with care and compassion for the sinner, revealing the healing grace of a loving God.
If this fails, confront the sinner in the presence of witnesses, and if that fails, bring him to the church.
This gospel inspired our holy father Augustine to write chapter four of his rule on safeguarding chastity and fraternal correction.
As Augustinian brothers, either individually or with a few of the brothers of the local community, we are encouraged to deal with sinfulness quietly with respect for the dignity of the wrongdoer, acting in compassion to prompt a brother’s conversion away from sin.
Only in the most dire cases, when all else fails, when a brother refuses to repent, must a superior act to expel a brother from our Augustinian community.
It is a solemn responsibility for the superior to protect the faith of the brotherhood; and hopefully a last resort.
However, having said all this, we need to avoid the prosecutorial impulse which claims that “this is not the first time you sinned, but only the first time you got caught!”
I think that St. Paul in his letter to the Romans gives us a way to uphold the integrity of all people.
Paul wants us to obey the commandments, but most of all we need to be known for our love and compassion for others.
Paul tells us, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, love does no evil to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law
This is something to think about when we are tempted to be the prosecutor in the story I opened with.
The gospel calls us to overcome our anger, and instead, share the healing grace of God with those who wrong us.
Our actions need to be expressed in our love and ultimate concern for others. Saint Augustine urges us to look within.
Each of us needs to put ourselves in the place of the sinner, and acknowledge the presence of sin in our own lives, asking for God’s grace to overcome our own sin.
Only then can we expose the foibles of others. We need to respond to the presence of sin with love for others.
If we wish to experience an eternal reward, we need to acknowledge that everyone deserves a second chance: A chance that Jesus Christ won for us by facing the cross.