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Terrance KleinSeptember 06, 2023
Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

A Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9 Romans 13:8-9 Matthew 18:15-20

Remember this routine from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”? A bully offers to buy the hero’s cherished bicycle. Pee-wee says it is not for sale, not even for “a hundred billion million trillion dollars.”

“Then you’re crazy,” Francis the bully tells him.

Pee-wee responds, “I know you are, but what am I?”

“You’re a nerd.”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

You’re an idiot.

“I know you are, but what am I?

Soon both are chanting the comeback in chorus. “I know you are, but what am I?”

Comedy is funnier the closer it comes to the truth, and some truths are too troubling to come straight at us. They are more easily swallowed with a dose of humor. We do not like to be corrected, to hear that we are wrong. Our first impulse, as sorry as it sounds, is simply to retort, at least within ourselves, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Ezekiel is made a “watchman” for the house of Israel. “When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me” (33:7). And Jesus said to his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Mt 18:15).

In both instances, fraternal correction is seen as a mercy, a kindness we show to another. Commenting on this command, St. Augustine wrote that to not correct those whom we should love is callousness. It suggests that we do not really care about one another.

If you fail to do so, you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he is in his abuse (Sermon 32 on the New Testament).

Listening to the Scriptures, we may immediately think of those who need our correction. But in the spirit of “I know you are, but what am I?” let’s start a different search. Let’s ask: Are others trying to correct me? Have I heard them? Or do I immediately respond by going on the attack? I know you are, but what am I?

There are signs that others may be trying to correct us. If they are skilled in the task, they may do so with a positive example or image that they offer to us in conversation. They respond quite differently than we do to the same prompts. They talk about how wonderfully someone else handles the same situation, or how positive some change might be. Of course, they are relying on our sensitivity to their suggestions. Can they? Do you know someone who consistently shows you another way?

Let’s ask: Are others trying to correct me? Have I heard them? Or do I immediately respond by going on the attack?

Here’s another sign that should trouble us: People disappear from our lives. Is this a clue that we could not hear a correction when it was offered? Maybe more than once?

Should others skedaddling surprise us when we do it ourselves? We encounter someone whose behavior does not change, who never shows remorse. Eventually, we move away from her. We cannot change who she is; we reluctantly determine not to suffer who she is.

Sometimes the absence is spiritual rather than physical. People are still in our lives, but they do not seem to share those lives with us. Small talk surrounds us. Is this because we could not hear the stuff that mattered?

Here’s another sign that others may be correcting us: We do not like them. There are plenty of reasons for not liking someone, but sometimes we resent those who correct us. Sometimes they do so without saying a word. Their existence alone goads us.

If the just one, the one without sin, can stretch out his arms on the cross, then surely, we can uncross ours, at least a little, and start to listen, to really hear.

For example, our culture gives us a pass on hating leaders in the church and in society. They are fair game, we say. Easy game as well. But whenever we strongly dislike someone, whether we know that person personally or only through the media, it is worth asking why. Is it possible that a leader chides us with the positive change that he or she represents? The laws of social motion say that inert people prefer to remain at rest. But can a good leader leave us that way?

Here is another voice we may not have heard: our dreams. Are they haunted by villains? Granted, this one depends upon the credence you place in the subconscious. If it is true that we play all the characters in our dreams or, put another way, that each character represents some aspect of ourselves, is it possible that your subconscious is self-correcting? That the slimy, angry, mean and inattentive people who visit in the night are versions of yourself?

Finally, what of the voiceless animals and the world of nature that surround us? Waterways and falling water tables? In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis called creation “a paradoxical and silent voice” (No. 85). Often too weak to be easily heard, Francis asks us “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (No. 49).

I know I am, but what are you? Do not become defensive about, well, being defensive. Did you really believe that you had no faults? Still, no one likes to stand exposed. If you have been stung by a just arrow, what might come next? But if the just one, the one without sin, can stretch out his arms on the cross, then surely, we can uncross ours, at least a little, and start to listen, to really hear.

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