September 11, 2023 | By Fr. Vincent Arisukwu

The readings of this weekend invite us to the importance of community, to identify that the foundational element for building a healthy community is to pay back our debts of love. Love must be sincere and evident when the community gathers.

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us to be our brother’s keeper, a tough aspect of love. To tell a brother the truth about moral and spiritual values is an important way of expressing care. The prophet identifies members of the community as watchmen or advocates for God. A watchman helps an erring brother to recognize the dangers of a negative behavior and the need for conversion. A watchman affectionately offers correction to help get the straying brother back on the right path. Ezekiel likens the watchman to a prophet, someone imbued with the truth and mandated by God. A prophet must speak God’s mind, to save a brother from death. Failure to speak up as needed is a disservice and does not communicate love for potential hearers. As Saint Paul would say, faith comes from what is heard, so the importance of proclaiming the truth cannot be overemphasized.

Jesus addresses his disciples in the gospel, outlining steps towards forgiveness and reconciliation. The first step is to engage in a dialogue. This approach could go either way, the offender may listen or may fail to listen. The steps that follow require the witnesses of others, the church, and the community. The last step is to treat the individual as a Gentile or a tax collector if the efforts to get a positive result fails. Think about the series of efforts to be expended in attaining reconciliation as stipulated in this passage. God invites us to explore vigorous avenues to secure peace and reconciliation. Jesus wants us to go and tell a brother his fault if the brother sins against us. Do not carry the burden in your heart. Do not bottle up grievance. Never entertain vengeance, rather step up to discuss. In his case, however, Jesus does not condemn the Gentiles or tax collectors. When Jesus asks us to treat such persons as a Gentile or a tax collector, what is he demanding of us? Jesus gives Gentiles and tax collectors several chances to convert and to believe the gospel. The community must be open minded and forgiving for them to even pray together. The community must go through rigorous path of forgiveness to build up one another.

It seems like the second reading is summarizing the readings of this weekend. Paul exults the Romans, demanding that love be treated as a debt to be paid, since love not only summarizes the commandments but fulfills the entire law of God. This makes sense if we realize the importance of love in building relationships. For Paul, love is beyond lips service, something that needs sincere commitment.

First, why would Paul describe love as a debt? It is to present us with the seriousness that it demands. A debt is something, typically money, that is owed or due. In most cases, there is a contract agreement, whether written or spoken. A debt can also be a feeling of gratitude for a service or favor. In such an agreement, the debtor has an obligation to pay the creditor. The Pauline language makes us aware of the debt of love that we owe to one another. To owe involves commitment and effort. To owe means challenges the debtor to fulfill the demands while the creditor looks forward to settlement from the debtor. In the broad sense, speaking the truth, being a brother’s keeper, seeking reconciliation, and forgiveness are ingredients of love. These are all aspects of God’s commandment of love that we owe each other.

Another feature of debt is sincerity. The debtor must show sincerity of purpose and character. Think about it from the point of view of lenders. Why do lenders run background check on potential borrowers/debtors? It is to ascertain the credibility or credit worthiness/character of their borrower. The borrower declares that the money borrowed will be paid back based on agreement and terms of borrowing. Failure to pay back would imply possible withdrawal of privileges. To fulfill their part of the deal, the debtor makes sacrifices, cuts down unnecessary expenses in order to pay back the debt. The debtor works hard not to treat the lender badly in the process of repayment. Paul says, “Love does no evil to the neighbor.”

If love is a debt and the terms of repayment agreed upon, then to not pay back would mean to do harm to person owed. Can we say that God runs a background check on us each time to measure our commitment to pay back the debt of love? What happens when we fail to fulfill these terms of agreement? Do we remember our obligation in this regard? Perhaps, we can link this up to the scripture passage where John defines the origin of love:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 Jn. 4:7-12)

From this passage, it is clear that we are all debtors of love because our love has been given to us by God. God is the “lender” and we are the borrowers. Each of us has entered into the contract of paying back as God warrants us. When we show love to someone, we service our love bank accounts. God wants us to mean business in loving one another. Being our brother’s keeper, forgiving, accepting each other, speaking the truth in a helpful way, showing forgiveness, etc, are all demands of love that we have to pay. It is not enough to say to someone, “I love you,” whereas we treat them bad. It is not enough to say you love someone if you speak illicitly against them at their back. It is not enough to say you love someone when you conspire and gossip against them. Today’s message reminds us that love is not an option, but a sincere act of the Christian faith. To live out God’s commandments, we must first of all be sincere about paying the debt of love.

Readings: 1st- Ezk. 33:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 13:8-10; Gospel- Matt. 18:15-20

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