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23rd Sunday in ordinary time: Our bill of health

Today’s readings: Ezekiel 33, 7-9; Romans 13, 8-10; Matthew 18, 15-20.

If we examine our faith communities, would we give them a clean bill of health? Such health is surely not measured by the efficiency of the parish office or the standard of our decision-taking processes. Nor does it depend on the activi­ties we hold or the way our structures function. These are important, but the Gospel criteria go in another direction. It depends on the level of sensibility that animates relationships in the community, on the hospitality we offer, on whether we really are caring communities.

We often discuss the Church’s role and function in today’s society and its relevance in people’s lives. What normally comes to mind is the Church’s mission to teach, to enlighten and to accompany. The prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading uses powerful imagery when he says: “I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel”. A sentry is someone you trust, who guards, protects, is alert to what can be threatening, who is even able to discern from a distance what can constitute a danger.

Ezekiel’s corpus in the Bible is roughly divided in two parts: the first constitutes his judgment on Israel, the second aims to restore God’s people reconstituted after the ruins of the exile. Today’s reading forms part of the second segment and lays down the essentials that truly make Israel a people of God. That which Ezekiel sees as essential for God’s people, Jesus also lays down as that which distinguishes his community of disciples from any other gathering. It’s all about how conflicts are resolved, how hurts are dealt with, how anger is managed. To some extent, this also emerges from one of the fundamental statements in Vatican Council II that refers to the Church as basically a “sign” and an “instrument” of God’s love for humanity.

The Church was never meant to be an end in itself. As disciples of Christ, our ultimate aim is not to belong to the Church but rather to be faithful to the commitment to make God’s kingdom a reality on earth. Speaking of the Church in terms of a “sign” was a very important shift in the Church’s self-understanding of its place in the people’s journey of faith.

The Church’s mission is not to teach love, to preach forgiveness and reconciliation, to promote justice. Even that, for some, can simply be a sham, easily reducible to words void of credi­bility. Rather, the Church’s mission is to be the sacred space where true love is possible, the community where forgiveness and reconciliation are given and received, the institution where justice is practiced, not just preached.

All this necessitates a level of maturity that can make of our faith communities a readable and credible sign. The greater the sensibility we show towards each other, particularly the outcast and weakest, the stronger the bond that builds the community and the clearer the sign of what we stand for.

Hence today’s Scriptures highlight a very particular responsibility we all carry as believers. The Scriptures are not advocating utopias. That is the Word of God and it is precisely that Word that distinguishes a faith community from any other social club or aggregation of people. What transpires from the dynamics of our communities is what they actually signify for so many who benefit from that love and care.

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