Sunday, September 4, 2011

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Ezechiel 33:7-9 / Romans 13:8-10 / Matthew 18:15-20

In the United States, we celebrate this weekend Labor Day, to commemorate the work of labor, and especially organized labor, for its contributions to society, and in so celebrating, we mark the 129th anniversary from that fifth day of September in 1882 when the Knights of Labor first celebrated the holiday, and by whose efforts, the Congress itself and the States in the Union would come to observe every first Monday of September. We might not today find anything remarkable or worrisome to capital or to businessmen in the demands of the Knights: the right to unionize for both skilled and unskilled labor, the eight-hour workday, equal pay for men and women, restriction of child labor, and the like. In the 1880s, however, things did not seem so simple. For many, the agreement between an employer and an employee was a private affair, a commercial transaction between free persons, and any interference in that commerce, however well intentioned, threatened the very foundation of liberty. In the face of dark and isolating vision, the Knights of Labor, founded by and largely peopled by Roman Catholics, gathered under the assertion that "that government is best in which an injury to one is the concern of all." Rejecting both the ideology of class struggle promoted by the Socialists and the self-serving commitment to private liberty by the capitalists, the Knights of Labor envisioned a world in which all workers, indeed all of society, cared for its least member.

Whether or Knights of Labor were inspired by Ezechiel directly, we can certainly see in their motto an echo of the words of the Lord declared through his prophet. The watchmen of Israel, and through the mystery of Christ the watchmen of the Church, are not entitled to allow wickedness to pass unrebuked as though it were a private affair, outside the bounds of legitimate criticism. To have knowledge of what is right, to see the right violated, but to say nothing about it, to leave the malefactor unchallenged and without condemnation of his wickedness is to be bound up in his sin. We cannot retreat to claims of personal liberty, or the need for free commerce, if we see before our eyes anyone, even the least of persons, fall victim to the evil of another, even if the victim is the sinner himself.

All the same, when less and less of our lives is private, when there is hardly a moment or movement we make that is not at least potentially being monitored and recorded, if not now then at some future date the source of someone else's power over us, the notion of being corrected in our errors by an all-seeing collective is less comforting than chilling. We might be excused from seeing the process of excommunication as outlined by our Lord himself in Matthew's Gospel as falling a bit short of Good News. Whatever may have been the truth in the first century, can we even believe that one member of the Church could ever take us aside and correct us privately, without the whole world eventually knowing about it? When privacy is so rare, is it any surprise that we cling to and defend rabidly whatever of it remains, however fleeting?

The Gospel, however, is not speaking, or at least not directly, to questions either of the legitimate needs of the state to monitor to private interactions of its citizens nor of the legitimate concerns and desires of citizens to remain free from government intrusion. The Gospel, as Paul reminds us, is speaking of love. It is not the calculus of rights which concerns us here, but the mathematics of love, in which the injury of one is not merely my concern, but is indeed my injury as well. It is my love for the injured party, and indeed my love for the one who injures, that compels me to act. To fail to act is to fail to love, and where there is true love, there is no intrusion into a private affair since where there is love, I am already present, already bound up in the fate and lives of my neighbors.

This is also the solution to our anxiety both of admonishing and of being admonished. So long as I see my fate, my life, as closed off from my God and my neighbor, so long as I imagine that there is some domain exclusively mine, where I am sovereign and which is, by its very nature, closed off from the concern of anyone else, human or divine, then I have by that imagining closed myself off from love. On the other hand, if I chose to love, truly to love, then I have by that love opened myself to the vision of God and neighbor, and when I am loved they become open to me, and none of us finds the presence of the other an intrusion. This is the foundation of the Law, this is the heart of the Gospel, that where there are two or three gathered in Christ Jesus — that is, where two or three are gathered in Love — there he is in the midst of them.

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