Readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel33:7-9
 Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
 Romans 13:8-10
 Matthew 18:15-20

The history of the Catholic Church abounds with stories of prophetic and saintly figures whose bold witness to faith led to their being rejected, falsely accused and even condemned to death. Take St. Peter and St. Paul, who were martyred for their fearless proclamation of faith in the saving power of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Or take holy men and women down the ages like St. Thomas More, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Maria Goretti and St. Josephine Bakhita, whose holiness and firm faith in Jesus Christ challenged powerful rulers, totalitarian ideologies and unjust systems. Their lives and those of countless saintly men and women remind us of the truth and beauty of God’s word as we hear it proclaimed this Sunday.

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel reminds Israel of its God-given responsibility as "watchman for the house of Israel." This role did not mean they were to sit in judgment over one other. Rather they were to express their love for God in love of neighbor, especially when someone strayed from God’s commands. For the commandments were not burdensome restrictions but the trustworthy path of life on which they would discover their great dignity as children of a loving, creator God.

When one member abandoned God’s way, it was the responsibility of the community to lovingly point the way back to God. This service was offered in the order of love, not of domination or harsh, isolating judgment. For God’s laws were not ends in themselves but the privileged means by which the people grew in love of God through love of neighbor.

It is this same love of neighbor that Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans in the second reading. Paul reminds the Christians of Rome, and us, that love is the fulfillment of the law when he sums up the commandments in one saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," for "love is the fulfillment of the law."

Paul challenges us to reflect on how we think about the commandments. Do we see them as restrictive obligations that "take the fun out of life?" Or do we see the commandments as paths of love to encounter God’s mercy through love of neighbor?

It is this transformative vision of Christian discipleship that Jesus presents to his disciples in the Gospel. Jesus urges the disciples to undertake the loving and often difficult task of guiding those who abandon God’s ways and separate themselves from the community of faith. In return they can expect rejection, false accusation and even martyrdom.

But their service is an act of love for God expressed in love of neighbor. Love is the reward. Jesus reminds them that "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." For the courage to express our love of God in love of neighbor we pray, "Speak to me, Lord."

Reflection Question: How are you called to build up the unity of your faith community?

Sullivan is a professor at The Catholic University of America.