Msgr. Joseph Prior

(Readings of the Holy Mass – Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“Handle with care,” the package reads. We see it often on items shipped that contain something that is valuable but could easily be damaged. Perhaps those words can also be used in human interactions. Every human being is valuable. Words and actions can encourage, strengthen and motivate others on the road of life. Words and actions can also damage, discourage and hinder growth. It depends on the words and actions along with the intent and manner of delivery.

Jesus teaches us today about what has been later termed “fraternal correction.” The basis of such activity is love. None of us are perfect, only God is perfect. So while we are on this journey through life we continually have opportunities for growth in all the varied aspects of life. Another important aspect is that we do not live in isolation. Not only are we somehow bound together by the fact we are all human beings but, through Christ, we are adopted children of God. We are brothers and sisters. We are one family. The dynamic of this family is love. The church then is made up of imperfect humans striving to be perfected in love of God and each other as we journey on our way home.

Now since we are not perfect but striving toward it, there are going to be some shortcomings, even mishaps. Sometimes these may be small, sometimes they may be great. Regardless, we all have need of growth. So Jesus teaches us today about the importance of helping one another along the way. He begins “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Jesus uses the term “sin” which perhaps suggests the matter to be “corrected” is something serious. This would be consistent with the practice that Ezekiel demands in the first reading. He uses the term “wicked one” for the offender. Jesus also wants us to respect the reputation of the offender by handling it privately first. If this does not work, then the offense is brought to the larger community. The person is to be given every opportunity to change.

In the end, Jesus says: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” How should we read this? It has been interpreted in differing levels of degree over the long history of the Church. If someone is dangerous and could cause serious injury to others, and they refuse to cooperate or change, then perhaps isolation from the community is necessary. For more general cases, perhaps, we should look at the way Jesus handled “tax collectors and sinners,” he engaged them and offered them more of life through mercy. Perhaps it is also helpful to remember Jesus’ response to the disciples when asked how many times they should forgive. “Seven times?” they asked. “Not seven but seven times seven,” was his reply. By this he did not mean 49, he meant always forgive. Now the element which differentiates the two situations is a repentant heart. The discussions and arguments of when, how and to what extent fraternal correction should be practiced could provide an endless debate. The underlying need for reconciliation and fraternal care does not go away.

So how should this be applied in daily life? In a word, carefully (meaning “with care”). Our relationships are valuable. We live in a society where independence reigns supreme. While we certainly recognize the goodness of our independence, we cannot fail to recognize that “independence” is not absolute, we need one another. We walk together on this journey. Our words and actions have an impact on others. Yet the current notions of “independence” lead in some strong ways to the notion that there are very few “rights and wrongs.” One pervasive notion is that I can do whatever I want so long as it does not hurt someone else. This is one element of our current situation that makes fraternal correction seem like an invasion. All the more reason to be “careful” about the way this is practiced for one does not want to alienate another but to assist.

“Handle with care,” is written on the hearts of all human beings. God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us makes us worthy of such care. The care we give is love.


Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.