“When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.”
I once knew a young man, Jim, who was continually going around confronting anyone who he thought was not living up to the proper Christian standard. If your dress was too short or your shirt too loud you would receive a half hour scolding on modesty. If you disagreed with him on some doctrinal position, Jim would sit you down for an hour lecture on orthodoxy. And God have mercy if you had committed some sin, like swearing or smoking. A hell, fire, and brimstone sermon would consume you till you’d think hell itself might actually be a relief. I say God have mercy, because Jim had none.
I had seen enough people wither under Jim’s ferocity that I decided to talk with him about his approach. Might there be a gentler way of pointing out the error of another’s ways? Was it necessary to confront everyone he came into contact with, friends and strangers alike? Jim informed me that each of us have a ministry. “True enough,” I said. His ministry, he went on, was the ministry of rebuke. I had never heard of that one before.
Actually, Jim was not a bad guy. He sought to love and serve God. It was a question of too much zeal and not enough knowledge. Or perhaps more accurately, it was too much knowledge. He knew the truth and wanted to defend it from all attempts to degrade or attack it. Truth he loved. People, however, were objects to be saved and conformed to the truth.
Most of us are in no danger of the extreme ways of Jim. In fact, when we hear the words of Ezekiel or today’s gospel, it is probably someone like Jim that we visualize and determine we would never want to be like that. We side with the passages which speak of love and forgiveness. “The Christian is to be meek and mild.” “We shouldn’t get angry.” “It is not for us to judge.” “It’s none of my business anyway.” Truth be told, though, we each have a list of things that upset and concern us, but we would never think of speaking up about them or going directly to the persons or institutions involved in an effort to get them to consider their ways. Although we probably don’t refrain from gossiping, murmuring, complaining, and backbiting.
Somewhere between the “ministry of rebuke” and “Judge not”, we need to find the balance. There are things we should get angry about in life. There are great evils which must be addressed. Not to address them is to turn our backs on those who are crushed by the evil and evil doers. In these situations, love compels us to anger. Or what parent who loves their child does not scold them when they do wrong in order that they might develop into mature, socially responsible adults. Likewise, when we see our Christian brothers and sisters in sin, we must admonish them so that they can grow in Christ.
The balance is found in the scripture saying, “Speak the truth in love.” If we just speak the truth without love, if truth is more important to us than the people to whom we speak it, then we crush them with a burden of guilt. If in our zeal for social justice and reform we angrily call to action institutions and governments while forgetting that there are people of God created value within those structures, then we ourselves become as guilty as they of violence, dehumanization, and discrimination. People are more valuable than truth. However, to say we love without ever admonishing or challenging, is to allow the evil to grow and destroy the very ones we say we love. Therefore, we are to speak the truth because we love the people we are speaking to. If we do not love them then we should be silent. When we speak the truth, without love, then we harm others. When we “love” others, denying our own anger and neglecting to speak the truth, we do damage to ourselves. It is only as we both speak truth and move in love that all can find redemption, conversion and peace.
Ez.33:7-9, Rom 13: 8-10, Mt. 18: 15-20
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.