Paying Our Mutual Debts By Doing All Things in Love!
Readings: 1st: Ezk 33, 7-9; Ps 94, 1-2.6-9; 2nd: Rom 13, 8-10; Gos: Mtt 18, 15-20
This brief reflection was written by Rev. Fr. Njoku Canice Chukwuemeka, C.S.Sp. He is a Catholic Priest and a Member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers (Spiritans). He is currently working at the Sanctuario del Espiritu Sancto, in Dorado, San Juan Puerto Rico, of the Spiritan International Group of Puerto Rico – Republica Dominicana. For more details and comments contact him on: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
“Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor. Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.” (Where charity and love are, God is there. Love of Christ has gathered us into one. Let us rejoice in Him and be glad”). This is a very popular Catholic and Christian hymn. There is no better time to sing it than on this glorious, gracious and love-filled 23rd Sunday of ordinary time when the holy mother church in her wisdom reminds us of our obligation to love, to do all things in love, and to pay the debt of love we owe one another. She also presents to us Jesus’ love-based approach of conflict resolution and management.
A brief story from the book titled: “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes” (p. 28), edited by Clifton Fadiman goes thus. A Roman nobleman died, leaving enormous debts that he had successfully concealed during his lifetime. When the estate was put up for auction, Caesar Augustus instructed his agent to buy the man’s pillow. When some expressed surprise at the order, he explained: “That pillow must be particularly conducive to sleep, if its late owner, in spite of all his debts, could sleep on it”. Debt creates pressure and no one likes pressure. However, there is one debt that we will always owe and never be able to pay off fully: “The debt of love to one another.” It is difficult for us to get to a point where we say, “Now I have loved others as much as I ought to.” And so, no matter how long we have been and grown as Christians, we still have much room to grow in love. This debt is that desperate one that we cannot discharge ourselves from, but must ever be paying, and yet ever owing. As we say of thanks, “Gratiae habendae et agenda (thanks must be given, and yet held as still due”), so must this debt of love.
It takes love to warn, counsel or advice someone. Therefore, it is out of God’s love that He sent his prophet Ezekiel in our first reading today to warn his people. He both sends and equally warns us today of the imminent calamity to befall our world due to disobedience and negligence. It is a duty and a of course a “categorical imperative” which we must obey. It is not an option! That is why today the Lord makes it clear to us as he did to Ezekiel that if we keep quiet or silent in our world, it will perish. Therefore the Lord says: “I will hold you responsible”, it is your duty to speak out, counsel and advice my people. Being indifferent to the decay of our world especially in terms of morality, and spirituality is to our detriment too. So, a great onus lies on all of us to be our brothers and sisters keeper. What do we do when things go wrong, keep quiet, add to the wrong by joining the band wagon, pretend the wrongs does not exist? We have to act, but whatever action we take in order to correct, to rebuild, and to bring back the lost sheep must be motivated by love. This is what will make the difference, as Loraine Okotie once sang: “Love is that medicine that cures you today,” while The Beatles wrote a popular song titled, “All you need is love.” We must also be mindful that God says: “I do not delight in the death of a sinner…let him repent and live” (Ezek 18, 23). Therefore, the most important thing is that we must make ourselves heard but, in love. So much depends on us the “raiment of Israel”!
In the second reading, the apostle to the gentiles, Paul hits the nail right on head: “Avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love”. We must take note of the adjective, “mutual” with which Paul qualified love. The quality of this love is not just a feeling but ultimately can be known only by the actions it prompts in us. It simply means that love is relational, and, a give and take. It is more meaningful when it is shared. For this to be, it must be taken as an obligation because, when one owes a debt, he/she has to pay. What does mutual love achieve? It counsels, and corrects. It is generous to the extent that we continue to offer ourselves to and for others until there is nothing more of us to offer. It exhibits all the qualities Paul enumerated in 1Cor 13. Paul sees the paying of debt as an obligation and a duty which must be carried out in and with mutual love. It sounds easy, yet it is pretty difficult. However, our consolation lie in the scriptures which say: “With God all things are possible”, and “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me” (Mtt 19, 17; Phil 4 13). In deed we can! So, correct that ill in love, win back that straying child, drunkard husband, wayward wife, and mend that broken relationship in love. Counsel that stubborn youth in love, win back that rebellious and cantankerous friend in love, mend that broken and near-to-crash marriage in love and resolve that community problem in mutual love.
In the gospel today, Jesus continues to toll the line of doing everything in and out of mutual love. He sets before us the principles of reconciliation, mediation, and conflict management. He gives us a three dimensional principle based on love. Today he gives us the spiritual freedom and power for restoring broken or injured relationships. He makes it clear that we should not tolerate a breach in mutual relationships and love among us. Conflicts must be confronted, and help must be offered in order to restore a damaged relationship. It is love based because it teaches us how to patiently win back our brethrens. How do we go about our problems today in our world? Take a pound of flesh, or go straight to the court of law? It suffices to take note of the flow of this passage. In it we see a movement from the individual to the communal. Where there is conflict, Jesus encourages us to confront it directly, one-to-one. Should the problem persist, we should include someone else in the conversation, and if all else fails we should take it to the community as a whole. In this passage, there is a progression from individual confrontation to communal attention that follows the development of a conflict from its origin in individual matters to its conclusion at the community level.
Unfortunately, out sheer hatred, anger, and quest for revenge, we jump the primary stages that Jesus sets before us today straight to: “treat him like a tax collector”. This is a very wrong application of this passage. Even when we choose this option wrongly, we must note that Jesus says: “Treat him like…” and not kill, destroy, or castigate him. But simply, let him be. Perhaps one day, like the prodigal son he will come to his senses and return. So we must make all possible efforts to reconcile with others, warn them, counsel them before booting them, and all of these must be done in love. This is because everyone deserves to be given the chance for change. For all these to be possible we must agree to work together in mutual love. Whenever we do Christ will definitely be there with us as he promised: “If two of you on earth shall agree to any thing…it will be granted to you…For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” What a promise and a reassurance! However, this “being there with them” is meant for those who will come together in mutual love for reconciliation and conflict management. That is, those who are ready to follow the love based principles that Jesus laid down for us today.
My dear, what we read and hear from all the readings of this Sunday is a call to action and duty, a call to pay our mutual debt of love, and a call to follow Jesus’ love based approach. Our Lord and God is making us watchmen and women today and not “watch dogs”. Watch dogs bark and bite but watchmen and women take the offender into custody, not necessarily to kill or do harm (safe in safe defense), but to help him or her change for good. Like Ezekiel we are not charged with assessing the spiritual state of the people. God will do the assessment and will provide the message that we will to give the people. Our only responsibility is to deliver God’s message in love, and faithfully. This is the mission we are called to today, and the only way we can do it and do it very well is in, with, and through mutual love. This is why the Psalmist warns us today as ever before: “O that today you listen to his voice, harden not your hearts as at Meriba…!”
Peace be with you all!!