Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

Sept 8, 2002

Twenty-third Sunday Ordinary Time 2002

Ez 33: 7-9, Rom 13: 8-10, Mt 18: 15-20 Ezekiel 33:7-9

YOU, SON OF MAN, I HAVE APPOINTED WATCHMAN: Ezekiel was a priest in the temple cult in Jerusalem, a contemporary of Jeremiah. He survived the Babylonian takeover of Jerusalem and was one of the first to be taken into captivity in 597 BC. His prophetic ministry started while in captivity. An ex-priest with visions, he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem documenting the sins of Israel. Ten years into his captivity the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple as he said it would be in 587 BC. After this, Ezekiel’s prophecies changed to ones of hope and encouragement.

The Prophet Ezekiel was a critical link between Jeremiah and Second Isaiah. His writings were a prototype of the apocalyptic writings of Daniel.. His famous vision of dry bones rising laid the foundation for the concept of the resurrection of the dead (Chapter 37). He laid the groundwork for Second Isaiah’s Suffering Servant by asserting that the hope for Israel lay with the faithful, exiled community.

One of the most difficult mindsets that Ezekiel had to confront was the idea of collective guilt. We are at a great disadvantage in understanding Ezekiel’s dilemma. In Ezekiel’s day, the mindset of collective identity dominated, to the extreme. Individual people defined themselves by the families, clans, tribes and nations to which they belonged. An individual’s personal identity meant very little. Today it is just the opposite. In modern western societies, individual identities are highly regarded with people having little or no sense of collective identities. Today it is hard to find individuals willing to take responsibility for their own actions, let alone the faults of systems. In Ezekiel’s time, all people were held responsible for the sins of their leaders; the King’s sin is everyone’s sin.

With a scribe’s precision, Ezekiel invents the whole concept of personal responsibility for the Jewish people in chapter 18. In this week’s text from chapter 33, he applies his understanding of personal responsibility to the role of the prophet. I can’t help but believe he had the person of Jeremiah in mind when he wrote these verses.

Ezekiel makes an analogy with the work of the prophet to that of a city’s watchman. The watchman’s task was to warn the city of any impending danger or attack. The task of the watchman is still very important today. Instead of sitting on a watchtower on the outer walls of the city, modern watchmen in the USA operate satellite stations ready to give the nation the earliest possible warning of impending danger. One of the major concerns in the aftershock of 9/11 was the failure of our nation’s watchmen; i.e., the FBI and the CIA to anticipate what happened in New York City and Washington, D.C. and stop it before it took place. Being a watchman is no small thing. In this week’s text, Ezekiel makes the analogy that the prophet is like the watchman for God to the people of Israel, God’s early warning system. If God gives the prophet the message that the people are doing evil and will surely die because of the evil they are doing, the prophet is personally responsible to deliver this unpleasant message to God’s people, no matter how much they don’t want to hear it or how badly they treat the prophet (the messenger) because of the message. What the people do with the message from God is their business; the prophet is only responsible to deliver the message. Now if the prophet refuses to deliver the message, the people will still suffer the consequences of their evil deeds but God will hold the prophet personally responsible for the people’s evil ways because the prophet did not warn the people as God commanded. This is a continuation of the theme of the Prophetic Dilemma from last week’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah.


Many years ago, early in my Catholic Worker/Resistance career, I remember driving down a hill on Indianola Road on the south side of Des Moines heading towards downtown. From the top of the hill, you can see the whole Des Moines skyline. A vision of a nuclear bomb destroying the city came into my mind’s eye. It was scary. I saw my beloved hometown in ruin, completely destroyed. I thought of my family and all the people I know, my church and schools. It was too much to deal with. And then I thought realistically what were the chances that a nuclear bomb would destroy Des Moines in my lifetime? I thought one in a hundred? Oh, better than that I thought. One in a thousand? Probably, I thought. How about one in 200,000? I thought, no way. The odds are not that good. Why 200,000? Because that was what the population of Des Moines was at the time. Then I figured if the odds of Des Moines being destroyed by a nuclear bomb were less that 200,000 to one, then at least one person from Des Moines should devote their life to trying to warn the city of this god-awful possibility. For weeks after my vision, I avoided going down that hill on Indianola Road. It was too scary a thought to revisit. It is funny how your mind tries to rationalize the unthinkable, yet very real, destructive power in our grasp.


In this week’s Gospel from Matthew, the exercise of power and authority within the Christian community is taken up on a personal and communal level. Many scholars believe Matthew’s Gospel was written in the 80s in the city of Antioch in Syria. Though one of the leading urban centers of the New Way, the numbers of people who made up this early community were never more than a few hundred.

This week’s opening verse, "If your brother or sister sins against you", establishes the theme for the Gospel. Written primarily for the immediate community in which Matthew was writing, the text recognizes that within the early Christian communities there was going to be conflicts, disputes, and disagreements. The question is how they should be handled within the Christian communities. Matthew offers a three-stage process on how to deal with internal community problems between members. At each stage of the process, the intent is to reach an understanding in which reconciliation is achieved. By "sins against you" Matthew is dealing with observable, public behavior that impacts another.


In the first stage, the offended person confronts the offending person, one on one, privately. In a shame-honor society, the offense is often not as important as the honor or shame that is at stake because of the offense. Keeping the matter private and between the two parties reduces the possibility of escalating the conflict. Perhaps the offending person was not aware of the offense. Or maybe the offended person is mistaken about the facts. In either case, keeping it between the two parties affords the greatest opportunity for reconciliation and limits any escalation.

This step recognizes that sinning against another is serious, breaks relationships, and needs restorative action. The offended person is to take the attitude of the Shepherd in the Lost Sheep parable immediately before this Gospel (Matthew 18:10-14) and seek out the one who has erred (Leviticus 19:17). If the offending person acknowledges the wrong, seeks forgiveness, and agrees to restitution, the broken relationship is mended, the community is restored and stronger for the effort.


If the offending person refuses to listen to the offended person one on one, then the offended person is to take two or three witnesses or negotiators. Now the situation becomes semi-public and takes on the character of a legal proceeding (Deuteronomy 17:1-7 & 19:15). The witnesses represent the community’s authority and desire for reconciliation.


If the offending person refuses to listen to the witnesses, the final stage is to take the matter to the whole community. This is where the difference between a Christian community and a secular legal case is most apparent. In a secular legal case, guilt or innocence is determined, and punishment is meted out. The Christian community is duty-bound to judge the case in the measure of love and forgiveness set out by Jesus. This stage fully engages the cultural values of honor and shame. The event has become fully public and publicized within the community with the hope of forgiveness sought and reconciliation achieved. If the offender chooses to disregard the community’s judgment, the consequence is excommunication. To be considered as "a Gentile and a tax collector" is to be designated an outsider. The offending person is removed from the community.

AMEN, I SAY TO YOU (Twice said):

The Gospel follows with two "Amen, I say to you" by Jesus. In the first one, Jesus gives the local community the same authority to bind and loose as he gave to Peter in the Gospel two weeks ago (Matthew 16:19). This means that the community may settle conflicts and legal cases between each other with God’s blessings. However, being a Christian community, excommunication is never the last word. The second "Amen, I say to you" directs the community to continue to seek reconciliation and to pray that the offending party is someday reunited with the community. To be regarded as "a Gentile and a tax collector" puts the person outside the community but not outside the community’s love, forgiveness, and helping hand.


The Gospel concludes with these comforting words. Many people lament all the different Christian denominations that exist today. And there is no doubt that the history of how these divisions came about is full of horror stories of fellow Christians doing great violence and evil to each other. In so many documented cases, hatred triumphed over love, and revenge outweighed forgiveness. However, the sin is not that there are many different Churches and theologies that claim to follow Jesus but how those who all claim to be following Jesus treated each other along the way.

This week’s Gospel leads me to believe that in his heart Jesus was a Catholic Worker personalist and a Christian anarchist! It seems the Church he intended to follow him works best when it’s governing structure is never too big or impersonal that the whole community cannot take part in its governance. This king of local control is what the Catholic Church calls the principle of subsidiarity. This principle of subsidiarity believes that decisions that affect people most directly should be made by the people themselves, at the local level. The assurance Jesus gives at the end of this week’s Gospel is that it takes no more than two or three believers to bring his presence and Spirit into their midst, to do his work.


This week’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans states the foundational directive upon which all Christian deeds and decisions should be made; whether inside or outside the community.

This week’s text from Romans follows perhaps the most misunderstood text in the entire New Testament. The first seven verses of chapter 13 in Romans is Paul’s segment on Obedience to Civil Authorities. Paul puts in the most positive light what civil authorities are supposed to be, protectors of the community from those who do wrong. In this role, civil authorities deserve our obedience.

The problem arises when Christians take this directive to mean that civil authorities deserve our unquestioning obedience no matter what they ask us to do. Nothing can be further from the truth. As soon as civil authorities ask us to do something contrary to God’s law, we are under no obligation to obey them. In fact, our moral obligation would move us to resist any civil authority that would have us go against God’s law. The fact that Paul was under arrest to stand trial in Rome when he wrote this letter to the Romans should be an obvious clue that blanket obedience to the State was not what he intended. In this week’s second reading, Paul tells us, in the plainest of language, what the ways of God are. God’s ways are loving ways; beginning, ending and in the middle. Paul tells us that there is no claim on a Christian except the claim to love one another. Love fulfills all law, civil and religious. Granted, the world would be so much better if people did not commit adultery, did not kill anyone, did not steal or covet what does not belong to them. And when people violate these commands, civil authorities have the right to intervene and seek justice. But even if these commandments were obeyed, it would not be enough for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God goes beyond the "shall nots" and embraces active love of others, all others, friends and foes alike.


My close encounter with excommunication came in November, 1997. I attended a Call to Action conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. At the end of the conference, I presided over a Eucharist for the participants. In my homily, I told the folks that they were as Catholic as anyone else in the Church and deserved the Eucharist. Notice that I presided at this Eucharist was reported in the National Catholic Reporter. I soon received a letter from the chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln informing me that I was no longer welcome in their diocese to function as a priest, that my priestly faculties would not be recognized in the Diocese of Lincoln; and if I should return to the Lincoln Diocese and function in any priestly manner, I would be excommunicated. When news of this directive was made public, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Des Moines, my diocese, confirmed that such a directive was given to me and that should the Bishop of Lincoln excommunicate me, his excommunication would stand.

It should be noted that this threat to excommunicate was made without following any of the prescribed steps suggested in today’s Gospel, nor could I determine where, if any, effort towards reconciliation was made. It is hard for me to believe that what the Bishop of Lincoln deems his right and authority to threaten to excommunicate in this matter has any connection with what Matthew intended in his Gospel this week.


By far the hardest thing about living a Catholic Worker/Resistance way of life is living in community. It’s harder than voluntary poverty, harder than doing the hospitality, and harder than peacemaking and going to jail.

A sin I am prone to commit is to place ideas, concepts, and task over the needs of real people. I can be saving the world and at the same time ignore the hurting person right in front of me. One Friday night when I was on house duty at the Catholic Worker, dinner was served, folks were leaving and we were hurrying about cleaning the kitchen and dining area, getting ready for Mass that evening. It was 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes until we were officially closed. I was not feeling well. I had a lot on my mind. And as many who know me well, I can be a bit obsessive and direct in getting things done, especially cleaning task.

Some guys came to the back door and asked if there was any food left. I quickly said, "Sorry, we are closing down. We serve at 6 p.m. Try to get here on time next time". Then I went about my manic cleaning way. Some of the volunteers who brought the meal saw what happened and were shocked. These are folks who have been bringing meals to our house for years. There was plenty of food left over. It would have been no problem to make carryout plates for these men.

Nothing was said at the time. Before the volunteers left that night, they went to talk to Carla and Jackie about my behavior. They were so distraught that they were thinking about not returning to the Catholic Worker again. Carla came to talk to me the next morning about the incident. Upon listening to her account of what happened, I, too, was shocked and mortified by my behavior. If the Des Moines Catholic Worker is anything, we are a place where hungry people are fed. The fact that we were 15 minutes from closing and had plenty of leftover food makes what I did all the more scandalizing. My sin was an "observable, public behavior" which clearly "impacted others". I was struck to the heart, mortified by my behavior.

The incident was brought up at our community meeting that Sunday night. Others had heard about what happened. An explanation was needed. I publicly apologized for my behavior. And I promised to apologize to the volunteers. I did not know who the men were who were turned away, so could not apologize to them. Two things were decided at the meeting; 1) I was not to take the Friday night hospitality shift because I am often too distracted with preparing for Mass to do the hospitality well and, 2) When hungry people show up at our door and the house is open, we feed them unless we have no food. If the house is closed, the individual community member decides whether to feed them or not.

Living in community is by far the hardest thing I’m looking forward to doing when I return to Des Moines. It is also the best thing I can do to keep myself honest, true, and humble. It takes a lot of trust to put yourself in the hands of others, who can, and will, call you to accountability. What makes all the difference in the world is that I know the people I am living with really love me and want the best for me.

Without love, there is no trust. Without trust, there is no community. Without community, I’m just one more arrogant, self-consumed individual in this crazy individualistic consumer society gone amok.