Sunday Sermon for September 10, 2023, the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
In the second reading today, St. Paul tells us that we should owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. We live in a society that is based, to a great degree, on debt, that is, many people owe a lot to many other people. At the same time, the charity in our society has, in many ways, grown cold. I think there is a correlation between these two realities.
It is not a direct correlation which would suggest that debt automatically causes one to lose charity. Rather, when we look at the debt that many people have incurred, we find the reason is ultimately a selfish one. Traditionally, people have gone into debt for education or to buy a home. While these things might be considered as selfish, I would consider them more practical and, ultimately, intended for the good of others, especially one’s family.
This is what makes the Christian message, and St. Paul’s insight, so astounding. If the only thing we need to owe others is charity, then it is selfless. Even the idea that we owe charity to others is really the opposite of what we typically think about regarding debt. Since love is not a payment or a reward for something an individual has done for us, then to practice charity toward another is not done out of a sense of obligation or even justice on the natural level.
Instead, when St. Paul tells us that we owe others our charity, it is because the person is made to love and to be loved, just as we are. So, the sense of obligation is not because we need to repay some for what they have done; rather, it is treating the person with dignity and acting toward him or her in a way that is proper, that is, always willing the best for them.
St. Paul takes this to the next step by telling us that love fulfills the law because love does no evil to the neighbor. It is easy to look at the laws of God as merely rules we are required to follow. However, if we act in charity, we will automatically follow all the laws because they are nothing but extrapolations of the two greatest laws: love God and love neighbor.
If we consider things from this perspective, we have the perfect means of examining our own conscience. In the first reading, God tells His prophet, Ezekiel, that he is the watchman for Israel. This means the prophet needs to point out the sins of the people and call them to conversion. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we have a similar prophetic call in that we need to speak with those who sin against us so they can repent. If we are to do this for others, then we must do this for ourselves first.
Calling others to repentance is not suggesting that we are free from sin ourselves. At the same time, it would be hypocrisy to point out the faults of others and call them to repentance if we are not willing to acknowledge our own faults and repent of them. So, if everything can be summed up in the saying “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” as St. Paul says, then we also need to look at what it means to love ourselves.
We know that love wills only the best for the other, so what does it mean to love the self? As usual, what we can say about something on the spiritual level is just the opposite of what we can say about the same topic on the natural level. We live in a society that is filled with self-love; at the same time, it is becoming more and more devoid of love for neighbor. This is because self-love, on the natural level, does not seek the best for the self, but seeks whatever I want, regardless of what this might do to others. In other words, it is essentially narcissism.
Proper self-love begins with recognizing our dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God who, through baptism, have become children of God and members of Jesus Christ. What is best for us is to be and to do what we were created to be and to do, that is, to love and to be loved. This means that anything that violates true charity needs to be removed from our lives so we can practice charity more perfectly.
Repentance from our own sins and imperfections opens our hearts for greater union with and love for God. Greater love for God results in a greater love for those around us. This not only fulfills the law and justice, but it is the only thing that brings fulfillment in our lives.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.