Owning our sins

Today, the sacred texts put us in touch with the truth that we are not yet holy as God is holy or perfect as God is perfect. We fall short of our goals; we miss the mark; we sin. But we are not without hope, because the God who created us in the divine image loves us and wants us to be the best reflection of the Godhead that we can be. The God who loves us also wants to enter into a relationship with us from which we will draw life, true happiness and deep fulfillment.

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Twenty-Third Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 95
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

When we sin, we place that relationship in jeopardy and stand in need of the forgiveness and rehabilitation that will make us whole and holy once again. At times, however, we fail to recognize our sin; it is then that the love we have for one another in Christ urges us to reach out to one another so that the process of reconciliation can begin.

Ezekiel (first reading) tells us that our responsibility for one another requires us to warn each other so as to "dissuade the wicked" from their ways. If we fail to do so, says the prophet, then we are culpable. God made us to be responsible for one another.

In today's second reading from Paul's correspondence with the believers in Rome, Paul reminds us of our mutual "debt." We are to love one another. We "owe" this to one another, says Paul. In loving, we fulfill the law. Because of our love for one another, we help one another to avoid sin and do what is right.

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Matthew, in today's Gospel, offers us a glimpse into the inner workings of the (Antiochene?) church of the 80s A.D. In order to help one another to become more authentic images of God, the community had worked out a process whereby those who sinned might be made aware of their sin, then seek forgiveness and be reconciled to God and to their brothers and sisters in Christ. These efforts at reconciliation were intended to keep the community honest and strong in its witness to God and to Christ.

In his excellent and inspiring book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted on the necessity of mutual confession as a means of maintaining the life and integrity of the community (Harper and Row, 1954). In confession, said Bonhoeffer, the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. Sin is brought into the light. The expressed and acknowledged sin loses its power once it is exposed and owned as sin. It can no longer threaten the unity of the community. Sinners are no longer alone because they have cast off their sin in confession and handed it over to God. Now, they are able to enjoy the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God.

Bonhoeffer also insisted on mutual confession as a necessary preparation for celebrating the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist. All anger, strife, envy, evil gossip and like conduct must be settled and finished if the members of the community are to receive the grace of God together in the sacrament.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, the habit of regular confession has changed. Some of us approach the sacrament very seldom. In an effort to stress the necessity of regular confession, Pope John Paul I cited the experience of Jonathan Swift's servant. After spending the night in an inn, Swift asked for his boots, which the servant brought to him covered in dust. When asked why they hadn't been cleaned, the servant replied, "After a few miles on the road, they'll be dirty again, so why bother."

"Quite right," said Swift. "Now get the horses and let us be on our way."

"Without breakfast?" cried the servant. "There's no point," said Swift. "After some miles on the road, you'll be hungry again" (Anthony Castle, A Treasure of Quips, Quotes and Anecdotes, Twenty-Third Publications, 1998).

So it is with confession. Admitting our sin and seeking forgiveness must become a routine aspect of our spiritual journey. To put it more colloquially, confession should be understood to be as a necessary "pit stop" without which we will not grow and our relationships with others will not flourish. As John Paul I put it, not only does confession result in the forgiveness of sin, it gives us the grace to avoid sin in the future and "makes firmer our friendship with God."

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the Aug 15-28, 2014 print issue under the headline: Owning our sins .

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