Sunday, September 4, 2011


All three readings today are focused not on what we shouldn't do, but what we should. In the Letter to the Romans Paul reduces the entire law to a single word, agape, love. For Christians love is understood to be the greatest of the theological virtue, the others being faith and hope.

Perhaps here we need to back up and look at the word virtue. Women reading this may find it's etymology offensive, because it comes from the Latin word vir, man as distinct from the Latin word homo which has no gender. The word originally meant simply manliness or courage. It later grew mean, as St. Augustine would say, "a habit consonant with our nature," as God intended us to be.

We call the aforementioned three theological because they come as gift from God. The rest we refer to as moral virtues. They are all, in short, habits, and like all habits must be practiced to be maintained and deepened, until they become our almost reflexive response.

The first reading and the gospel today invite us to examine our response to sin. What is our habitual, reflexive response when someone sins, particularly if the sin is against us?

I dare say there are very few of us whose response is the command given in today's gospel: go and talk to the person alone, and keep it just between the two of you. The command is clear and simple. So why don't we do it?

The gospel gives us some clues. First, it doesn't say "someone." The gospel uses the word adelphos, brother. One of the reasons we don't respond properly is that we forget that this person is my brother or sister.

Second, we forget that as the end of the gospel reminds us, Christ is present there. When the gospel speaks of two or three gathered, it doesn't only mean in church. I remained convinced that if we could keep ourselves constantly aware of the presence of Christ we would not say or do many of the things we say and do.

Thirdly, we have not sufficiently developed the theological virtue of agape, love/charity. We respond to pain. We respond with anger, but not with love. There are many kinds of love but the real test for Christian agape is precisely in those moments when we are hurt.

Lastly though, it strikes me that a large part of the reason we talk about people, rather than to them is that we lack virtue in the original sense of the word.We lack courage. The truth we don't want to admit is that every time we talk about someone behind their back, we are not just unchristian, we are cowards. It take no courage to talk about someone, it takes real courage to talk to someone.

Jesus's command in the gospel today is simple and clear. When our brother or sister sins, our first words about it must be not to a friend, colleague, or relative, but to the person themslef. If we cannot do that because we lack the virtues needed, then we best take the old nun's advice, and "offer it up," keep our mouthes shut and pray. Pray for God to deepen within us first the virtue of love. Pray then for God grant us a spirit of courage and right-judgement.

True virtues only come over time. They require intentionality, practice, and collaboration between us and God. The next time someone says does something that offends us, see it as an opportunity.