September 4, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

We are responsible for the actions of others

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

One of the oldest stories in the Bible is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain:

“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out in the field.’ When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord asked Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He answered, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God then said: ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!’ ” (Gn 4:8-10)

The question that Cain asks when confronted by God is: “Am I responsible for my brother?” It’s a good question, one that we all ask ourselves frequently: What responsibility do I have for the lives or behaviors of others—close family, friends and neighbors, fellow countrymen, even strangers? The answer is a paradox: We are responsible, but we cannot control the actions of others.

The readings for this weekend, the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, explore this paradox. The first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ez 33:7-9) tells us in no uncertain terms that God will hold us responsible for the death of someone whom we have failed to warn about his sinfulness.

In other words, we have a duty to speak out when we see evil or injustice being done by someone else. We may prefer not to get involved, to look the other way, but God wants us to care about others and to take a stand whenever we see injustice or immorality taking place.

Pope Francis frequently warns against “the sin of indifference.” When we fail to get involved in the lives of others, we commit this serious sin of omission, and by our silence we compound the evil being done by others.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday (Mt 18:15-20) also urges us to accept responsibility for the sins of others: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (Mt 18:15). Once again, we are tempted to avoid confrontation, to nurse a grudge or, worse, to seek revenge. Jesus, however, instructs us to deal with the problem personally and to accept responsibility for helping a brother acknowledge his wrongs and change his behavior.

St. Paul makes this point in a brief but powerful way: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:8-10).

We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves unless we get involved—not by trying to control someone else’s behavior, but by speaking the truth with love. We can’t be good, generous and loving people unless we accept some responsibility for what is happening all around us—in our families, our neighborhoods, our country and our Church.

Are we responsible for the racist, homophobic or anti-immigrant attitudes and actions of others? Yes, if we remain silent and do nothing. Are we at fault when injustices are committed against people who are poor and vulnerable? Yes, if we remain indifferent. Are we observing the commandments and following God’s laws when we simply mind our own business? No. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and love requires that we sacrifice our own comfort and self-interest in order to accept responsibility for the sins of others.

When we celebrate Mass, we confess our sins, including our sins of omission, in the penitential rite. Together, as women and men who accept responsibility for each other, we pray:

“I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”

And we ask Mary, all the saints, and all who are present with us to pray for us to the Lord our God.

We have the perfect model of loving acceptance in Christ, who took responsibility for our sins even though he himself was sinless. God’s Son didn’t have to get involved in the lives of the descendants of Adam and Eve. Yet he did.

He suffered and died for our sins, showing us that when we get involved in the lives of others—without trying to control anyone’s behavior—we fulfill God’s law and truly love God and our neighbor. †

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