“Practice makes perfect,” the old adage goes. The pithy saying is used by many people who try to motivate others to excellence. You can regularly hear the phrase at pre-practice or post-practice athletic team meetings. Coaches will repeat the words attempting to instill in the athletes a desire to improve their game or event. Music teachers will likewise use the familiar phrase to persuade young students to excel.
While the saying does help encourage the development of a skill or ability, it is not always accurate. If an athlete or student keeps practicing the wrong thing without changing, they will just get good at doing the wrong thing. For example if a swimmer works out every day doing a variety of workouts but never corrects his or her stroke, they might get stronger but not more efficient; they will never perfect their event. A more precise motivational phrase might be “practice, with correction, makes perfect.”
The idea of correction comes from the fact that none of us is perfect (which is the Latin word meaning “complete”). The quest to be a better person is the quest to live God’s will in our lives. Jesus shows us the way to live. He reveals God’s plan for the human person and for the world. He establishes the Kingdom of God of which we are members. He binds us together in love in his body, the Church. He calls us, inspires us and motivates us to be the person God made us to be.
The liturgy today reminds us of the need for correction as we walk the pilgrimage of faith we call life. Jesus gives us this instruction as part of his teaching on life in the communion of faith, the church. The teaching is important for us as we journey together toward the fullness of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. None of us travels this path alone. We travel together, we travel with the Lord and we are led by the Lord.
St. Paul emphasizes this in the second reading for today’s liturgy. The passage is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He says: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He then goes on to list several commandments but says these are all “summed up” in the saying of Jesus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here Paul quotes both Leviticus and Jesus (cf. Leviticus 19:8; Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31). You may recall that in the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this love (cf. Luke 10:26-37).
Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding a specific context for fraternal correction, that being when a “brother (in other words a fellow member of the Church) sins against you.” The bonds of love created by Christ in the Church are strong and powerful. They join us together as the one Body of Christ. Recall St. Paul’s image of the members of the body: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Geeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
When conflicts or disagreements arise, they strain the bonds of fraternity and brotherhood; and they pull at the fabric of our communion. As a result, the whole body suffers. It cannot live as it should because something is “wrong” or “out of place.” The situation cries out for rectification. Jesus gives direction for addressing the disruption or fracture in the relationship.
Step by step Jesus gives us direction on how to handle these situations in an attempt to bring healing. The first step is to address the offending party directly, one on one. This is the most promising and effective of means. If done correctly, that is in love, it demonstrates a willingness of the person offended to reach out for reconciliation and remedy. The person seeking resolution opens themselves up in a certain vulnerability to the offending party.
If this is truly done in an act of love, the action becomes a powerful witness to divine love and self-sacrifice. This is a private affair so as not to embarrass or ridicule the offending person but as a genuine effort for reconciliation between brothers in the communion. Such being the case: “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” If this does not work, then further steps can be taken.
The next step is taking this to a small group of joint friends — “one or two” — within the community. If this does not work then the matter is directed to the wider community — “the Church.” Each of these steps has reconciliation at the heart. Jesus concludes the treatment saying: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
The first reading, a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, also highlights the need for love in the community. Love will not allow a person to condemn, such as “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” but rather will seek to help a person to change and to be reconciled to the community. So important is the goal of helping the person who is doing “wicked” things that Ezekiel says that the person who fails to reach out to that person in love will be held responsible for his death in sin.
Jesus’ next two teachings in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy once again emphasize the bonds created in the Church among her members. The teachings regarding “binding and loosing” and the union of the faithful in prayer highlight the communion we share with each other in Christ: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
Jesus’ teaching on life in the Church reminds us of the bonds we have with one another. These are bonds of love. Our interactions with one another need to be based on the law of love. Any fracture in the community, any offense received needs healing. Jesus offers us a way for that healing to take place. Fraternal correction, so long as it is based on love and not retribution or judgment, is an effective way to help us on the journey of faith; in this case “practice with correction makes perfect.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.