DEALING WITH SINS IN THE COMMUNITY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 Cor 5:1-8; Ps 5:5-7, 12; Lk 6:6-11 ]
In the first reading, we read of the scandal in the Christian community in Corinth. St Paul was informed that one of the members was living with his father’s wife. St Paul in no uncertain terms condemned such a sin. He said, “This is a case of sexual immorality among you that must be unparalleled even among pagans. How can you be so proud of yourselves? You should be in mourning.” For him, it was unthinkable that Christians could conduct themselves in such a manner. It was scandalous.
In order to protect the community and the person who was living in sin, he instructed that “a man who does a thing like that ought to have been expelled from the community.” Excommunication was a practice in the early Church to weed out sinners from the community. Such an action appears to be very harsh by our standards today. But it is important that we understand the context of such a drastic action.
Firstly, St Paul understood clearly the nature of sin. He said, “You must know how even a small amount of yeast is enough to leaven all the dough.” When sin is allowed to take root, it will grow and become uncontrollable. That is why in the scriptures God and sin cannot co-exist. In the responsorial psalm, the psalmist says, “You are no God who loves evil; no sinner is your guest. The boastful shall not stand their ground before your face. You hate all who do evil; you destroy all who lie. The deceitful and bloodthirsty man the Lord detests.” Sin, therefore, must be eradicated at all costs. Hence his exhortation to the Corinthians to “get rid of all the old yeast, and make yourselves into a completely new batch of bread, unleavened as you are meant to be.”
Secondly, St Paul was concerned about what unchecked sin could do; especially a serious one that could damage the soul of the sinner himself. By allowing him to sin and not say anything about the situation, his sin would grow in him. As sin intensifies, he would not be able to hear the Word of God clearly or see the truth of God because he is blinded by pride and selfishness. In order to save his soul, St Paul said, I “have already condemned the man who did this thing as if I were actually present. When you are assembled together in the name of the Lord Jesus, and I am spiritually present with you, then with the power of our Lord Jesus he is to be handed over to Satan so that his sensual body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” So excommunication was intended not to destroy but to save the soul of the person.
Thirdly, based on the principle of the yeast that grows, there is also a danger for the rest of the community. When sin is tolerated and not exposed, very soon, as it is in our times, the Christian community will normalize what is evil to be what is good. Indeed, over the years, the Church has allowed secularistic values of the world to creep into our community. We have lost the sense of the Sacred even when we are in church before the Blessed Sacrament. We lack reverence for the Sacred in the way we dress and pray. We engage in entertainment and pleasures that are contrary to our values and our virtues. St Paul felt the need to protect the rest of the community from allowing sin to take root because of bad influence and example.
However, there is also the danger that if we act the way St Paul did with sinners in the Christian community, we can fall into legalism, like the scribes and Pharisees in the gospel. We read that “the scribes and the Pharisees were watching him to see if he would cure a man on the Sabbath, hoping to find something against him.” They were out to find fault with Jesus so that they could accuse Him of breaking the law. Jesus was perceived as a deviant and a law breaker, and certainly a threat to the religious and social institutions of the day.
So how do we reconcile the need for compassion and the danger of allowing sin to prevail in the community? How do we reconcile Jesus’ compassion and forgiveness for sinners? How do we reconcile Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and the Darnel in the gospel when the master told the servants who wanted to get rid of the weeds not to do so? (Mt 13:24-30) His advice was, “‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Mt 13:29-30) The truth is that life is not all black and white. It is always gray. Not everything is as neat as we would like it to be. In every situation, it is not just a matter of right or wrong, but the situation could mitigate how the law is to be applied.
The underlying principle is given by Jesus in the gospel when He was faced with the prospect of having to break the law for a greater need. Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, “I put it to you: is it against the law on the Sabbath to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to destroy it?” So whatever actions we take, it must be for the purpose of a greater good. If what we do gives life, then sometimes it might be necessary to break the laws. Even in the case of St Paul, he made it clear that the action was to be taken “so that his sensual body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” So the purpose of excommunication was in order for the sinner to repent of his sin and be readmitted to the community once he has put sin to death.
Secondly, it must be scandalous to the community. In other words, whatever was done must be considered outrageous and unacceptable to the community. What was considered scandalous in those days might not appear to be so scandalous today because of changing situations. Take for instance, the case of divorce. Until the early 1970’s, divorce was a taboo among Catholics. It was considered such a serious sin that a Catholic was ostracized if he or she were divorced and worse still, remarried. He or she was certainly not allowed to serve in any church ministry and the community frowned upon the person’s status. However, today, because women are educated, with most of them working, fidelity in marriage is more difficult. As Jesus said to the Pharisee who asked him “‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.'” (Mt 19:7f) Today, society accepts divorce as a fact of life and the Church is more tolerant of divorced Catholics because she recognizes the challenges of fidelity in marriages today.
Using these two principles, if we apply them to the sins in community, we must therefore exercise prudence in disciplining our members. For some very serious and scandalous sins, like pedophilia, for the safety of the community and the pedophile himself, the person must be excluded from the larger community. So when a sin threatens to destroy the community and the sinner himself or herself, drastic actions must be taken to save both. For others, a dressing down, as St Paul did, would be helpful to bring about repentance. This was how St Peter preached in his first homily when he accused them of killing our Lord. And “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” and repented. (cf Acts 2:37-38) However, the same words spoken to the Sanhedrin brought an opposite reaction. “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” (Acts 5:33)
So what is effective for one group of people might not be effective for another group of people. For some, they need compassion, understanding and acceptance. We need to journey with them, show our tender, loving care. If they are doing evil things, it is because they are hurting. So for such people, using harsh words will only drive them further away from us. But if we are gentle with them, they would be more disposed to listening to what we have to tell them. They will then be more receptive to the Word of God. That is why we need to pray for discernment and wisdom in applying the principles, the Word of God with compassion.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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