A Reflection for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is a standard in the dramas we devour. Seeing a peril firsthand, one observer says to another, “We’ve got to warn the others.” Notice that when the danger is impersonal, it is both simple to report and easy to be believed. “Fire is coming this way” or “The river is rising. We’ve got to get out.”
Warning others becomes more complicated when we move from external dangers to human affairs. Will they believe that you saw so-and-so hide the body of the murder victim? Did the villain laugh in your face when you threatened to expose him, saying, “They’ll never believe you!” Fire explains itself; fiends do not.
You cannot stop someone from living their own life, no matter how much you want to spare them from suffering.
And then there are the deepest human dramas, which concern more than reporting an immediately understood peril or a hard-to-credit insight. They involve sharing your understanding of the world with another. For example, you may not know for sure that another is walking along tracks already well worn by your own troubles, but you may feel compelled to share what you do know, what you’ve learned through life. “Son, I’m not saying that she’s not right for you. I’m only asking you to go slow.” “Sis, are you sure that this is what you want to do? You know that this can’t be undone.”
The challenge of these more deeply human warnings is that you cannot stop someone from living their own life, no matter how much you want to spare them from suffering. When a toddler reaches for something dangerous, we pull his arm away. But when an adolescent makes mistakes that we have already made, we cannot deny her the freedom to live her own life. So, the warning we might offer cannot appear to be a command. It must come as a conversation. We can only ask the other to look again, to consider another side of the situation. And we must be willing to listen. Sharing our understandings of the world must be a true sharing, not a sermon.
As the danger becomes more deeply human, our need to share our very selves, our stories, increases. Most everyone will listen to a stranger who says that a tree has blocked the road. But telling another that someone else has betrayed them takes some explaining on our part. Sharing insight requires sharing our lives. We cannot just tell another what we see, what we know. We must be willing to walk with them, to guide them if and when they open themselves to us.
Would we trust someone who simply told us what to do? Aren’t we much more likely to open ourselves as we walk with another?
Those three quite different ways of warning another can help us to understand better the mystery of the incarnation, why God chose to become one of us. Impersonal warnings are straightforward. They may take time to learn—we may ignore them to our peril—yet God wrote the laws of nature to explain themselves. Because understanding each other is more complicated, so, too, is crediting another’s warning. Whenever we warn one person of another, we must observe boundaries of respect, reserve, privacy and forbearance.
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8).
Finally, there is the question of understanding ourselves. Would we trust someone who simply told us what to do? Aren’t we much more likely to open ourselves as we walk with another? When the other shares a story, a life with us?
Is this why God does not enter our lives in a way that is undeniable, that closes our human freedom? As a stern stranger in the skies? Is this why the Lord chose to come among us as a man and chooses to remain among us in the mystery we call the church, in a human fellowship?
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt 18:20).
More reflections on this Sunday’s readings
- The Gospel calls us to promote love and justice, by Jaime L. Waters
- What angels and smartphones teach us about our humanity, by the Rev. Terrance Klein (2017)