Sunday, September 10, 2023

When The Child Doesn't Speak

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 94 (95):1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Picture: By huanshi on Unsplash

My dear friends, what is it like for parents to hear their baby speak for the first time? I can imagine how delighted they must feel. Conversely, I can also imagine how worrying it must be, if a child doesn’t speak when it’s past the time to do so. It’s likely, then, for doctors to be consulted, and tests performed. Not just on the child’s power of speech, but also on its hearing. For we know that the two are closely linked.

Similarly, in the spiritual life too, our ability to speak in the Spirit depends upon our ability to listen to the Spirit. Which may explain a curious feature of our scriptures today. Although the focus is clearly on our responsibility, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to be caring and courageous enough to offer words of fraternal correction to each other, the one word that keeps recurring in the readings isn’t speak or talk, persuade or convince, but rather, listen. O that today, you would listen to his voice! “Harden not your hearts."

Indeed, the whole process of correction outlined by Jesus hinges upon the willingness of the one being corrected to listen. If he listens the matter is concluded. If he doesn’t listen, it is escalated. But isn’t it taken for granted that even the one offering correction needs to listen too? So that the process isn’t just a way of bending the other to my will and preferences, for my comfort and convenience, but is, instead, truly a sharing of God’s Word in the Spirit? Isn’t this what it means to meet in (the Lord’s) name?

And isn’t this dual power to both listen and speak in the Spirit what characterises a true prophet, like Ezekiel in the first reading, and Paul in the second? When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name… Ezekiel’s authority to warn others flows from his ability to hear, his willingness to be instructed by God. And this is true not just for individual prophets, but also for the prophetic community, of which we are members. Just as the gift of binding and loosing is now bestowed upon the community, as it was on Peter (Mt 16:19), so too must the community be open to listen and to receive correction from the Lord, as Peter himself was (16:23).

All of this can have grave practical implications, which come into sharper focus when we allow ourselves to consider something like the sad reality of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the Church. A scandal that is, at least in part, the result of a failure of fraternal correction. For various reasons, there is a strong tendency among us to stay silent, even when faced with the danger and likelihood of abuse. Could it be that our failure to speak when we should is linked to a defect in our ability to listen? If so, doesn’t this defect need to be remedied, so that we might better heed the call to avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love? 

Sisters and brothers, if parents take such pleasure in hearing their child’s first words, how delighted God must be when we, God’s adopted children, finally find the courage to both listen and speak in the Spirit. What must we do to keep practising and developing this gift together in the days ahead?

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