ColumnsSunday’s Word

Harden not your hearts

September 6, 2020


Ez 33:7-9

Vigil at the Watchtower

Ps 95:1-2, 6-9

Harden not your hearts

Rom 13:8-10

Love your neighbor as yourself

Mt 18:15-20

Fraternal correction


The prophet Ezekiel was a priest in the temple of Solomon. He was among the first wave of exiles to Babylon. It was there that he heard about the fall of the city and the destruction of that temple. His prophetic career began abroad, the first of the prophets outside the land.

He styled himself a watchman, warning his people. The watchman in the tower would be the one who warns of the coming enemy, seen from a distance.

Ezekiel is credited with developing a sense of individual responsibility, in a time when that was not as dominant as it is for us. For them the group was primary, the individual secondary. To have a relationship with God, you belonged to the group, Israel, that already enjoyed that relationship in the covenant. But now the trauma of the Exile had occurred, and some were spared and some were not. How were they to come to terms with that? The notion of individual responsibility was pushing its way into greater awareness.

Ezekiel emphasized the ways in which the event depended on their own actions. He denied that the people should blame their preceding generations for the disaster in which they were now living. He pointed to the contribution which they themselves had made, in constructing the confusion and compromises in which they lived. Today’s passage is one of the main examples of this process of sorting out areas of responsibility.

Perhaps the lectionary editors selected the passage from Ezekiel to accompany today’s Gospel reading because it too concerns individual responsibility. The eighteenth chapter of Matthew is largely devoted to forgiveness. It is the fourth of the five major discourses of Jesus in this Gospel. Others are the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7), the instructions to the Apstoles sent out by twos (ch. 10), the Parables chapter (13), and the final Farewell (chs. 24-25).

While most of this eighteenth chapter highlights forgiveness, today’s message balances that. It focuses on responsibility for one’s actions. The situation is viewed from the side of the one who has been harmed, who is to forgive. But here that one is also told to hold the perpetrator of the harm accountable. But notice that it is not a matter of running to the authorities, or reporting that one without his knowledge. Rather, it is a process of confronting, in a spirit of reconciliation.

The passage is almost a primer for re­manding reconciliation. First comes the personal encounter. It may or may not re­sult in an apology and restoration. If not, the next step is that of bringing some neutral parties in to help with the reconciliation. We see a reluctance to bring down the opponent with a big crash.

Finally, if nothing else works, take it to the larger community, the church. All avenues of reconciliation have been tried, and nothing has worked. and now it is time for the judgement upon the perpetrator. Of course, there is a risk here. What if the church decides against the accuser, saying in effect that you, not that one, is at fault. It is further motivation to settle matters first, before drastic action is taken.

The passages concludes with the assurance that God endorses that community’s decision. What even is bound on earth is bound in heaven.

This is the other side of forgiveness, which does not deny the fault but overcomes it. This part demands that justice be done. Forgiveness is not a blank slate, it is a brave move in the face of injustice. But injustice needs to be named, as Ezekiel has insisted.

For reflection: Why do we find it so hard to forgive? And why is it so necessary?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.