11 September 2017
The Other Works of Mercy
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hollywood has recently become very good at remaking movies. Sometimes the movies are the same basic movies, but sometimes the remakes take a different spin. Some of the remakes I’ve seen and are quite good, like “True Grit.” Some are good, but have slightly different story lines, like “Ben Hur.” Others I have seen and think the original was better, like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Sometimes I wonder if people today realize that “Planet of the Apes” originally included Charlton Heston rather than James Franco.
For the past few years we have been talking a lot about mercy, especially during the Jubilee Year for Mercy that Pope Francis proclaimed. And during that year most people focused (and rightly so) on the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the prisoners; bury the dead; give alms to the poor. These still remain important parts of our faith. It’s not like we can stop doing these things because the Jubilee Year for Mercy is over.
But there are also the spiritual works of mercy, and I wonder how many of us know what they are? The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; comfort the sorrowful; forgive injuries; bear wrongs patiently; pray for the living and the dead; admonish the sinner. This last Spiritual Work of Mercy, admonish the sinner, is especially apropos for today’s readings.
In the first reading, God admonishes the Prophet Ezekiel that he is to warn the wicked of their behavior. If he doesn’t, then not only shall the wicked die for his or her sin, but also Ezekiel, because he failed to warn that person. This admonition is also given to priests every year in our spiritual reading. Because we are shepherds, we have the responsibility to make sure people know how to make good choices (virtue and grace) and how to avoid bad choices (vice and sin). If we fail to do that, then we will also bear the same punishment as those who make bad choices and sin. This is why so many of the saints consider the priesthood not a reason to boast, but a reason to fear for the final judgment.
But admonishing the sinner is not only for priests. Jesus, in the Gospel, tells his disciples that when someone sins, especially when it’s against you, to tell the person his fault, and hopefully that person will listen. But, Jesus gives more advice in case the person doesn’t listen. He then encourages the wronged party to bring in other people who can attest to the sin, hopefully convincing the person of the wrong that has been done. But if that doesn’t happen, then (and only then) involve the Church. If they don’t listen to the Church, then it’s time to stop trying to convince them, and instead, simply pray and fast for that person.
Admonishing the sinner is not, of course, easy. Especially with certain sins, people prefer sinning to following God’s plan. And when confronted with God’s plan, people sometimes don’t take it too well. Sometimes, though, the fault is also with the person admonishing. Sometimes people want to get back at the person, or rub that person’s fault in his or her face, rather than acting out of love. That is why what St. Paul says in the second reading is so important: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; […] Love does no evil to the neighbor.” Love doesn’t mean that sin is not sin; love doesn’t mean do whatever you feel like doing. But it does mean that if we are correcting sinful behavior, we are doing it for the right reasons: out of love. Parents do this all the time with bad behavior. If a child uses violence against another, that child may have to have a time-out, or maybe even be spanked (not abused, though). But if that is done out of love to help the child, then it can truly be a work of mercy, so that the child doesn’t continue to use violence, or escalate that violence as the child grows older.
Still, you might wonder how to admonish well. The USCCB website gives this advice: “In humility, we must strive to create a cutler that does not accept sin, while realize that we all fall at times; Don’t judge, but guide others towards the path of salvation; When you correct someone, don’t be arrogant. We are all in need of God’s loving correction; We should journey together to a deeper understanding of our shared faith; ‘Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.’” Those are all very good practical pieces of advice for how to admonish a sinner.
Today the Lord invites us to be our brother’s keeper, to help keep people from sin, or bring them back from sin if they have fallen. May we do this Spiritual Work of Mercy with love, and be willing to accept this Spiritual Work of Mercy with love, knowing that we all have responsibility for and with each other to live according to God’s plan for happiness and holiness.