Saturday, September 3, 2011

Warn the Wicked

 Two things are made very clear from the readings today: First we have a moral obligation to “Warn the Wicked” and second there is a right way of doing this. 

First off I want you to try and think of someone in your life right now who is going down a bad path.  Maybe it is someone in your family… a brother or a sister or a relative.  Maybe it is one of your friends at school who is getting into drinking or drugs, maybe it is your child who is straying from the faith, maybe it is a coworker or a boss that is treating people unfairly, maybe it is a colleague that is having an affair, maybe it’s your spouse who is drinking too much. 

First: “Warn the Wicked” 

The Lord has appointed us, as the faithful to be the watchmen for those who get off course. 
In the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel we hear that it is a grave and serious responsibility that we say or do something to help people when they are going astray. 

We are warned that if we do not:

Speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death.

This is serious, not only for those who are toying with sin, but for our own souls as well.  We normally think of sin as something that we do… a sin of commission.  But there is also the sin of omission, when we fail to do something that we ought to do… it is a sin of omission to see someone getting themselves into to trouble and not at least trying to help them by word or example. 

This can be the hardest with people close to us because we may be afraid of losing their trust, their confidence, or even their friendship. 

Friendship worth the risk

A professor was teaching a course in ethics. He introduced his undergrads to Aristotle's idea that ethics is rooted in the virtue of friendship. The professor explained Aristotle's argument this way: "Only a friend knows when to press and when to hold back. A friend has the right to tell you the truth, and truth-telling can be inherently painful."

During the semester, the students presented their own experiences of ethical dilemmas they had encountered and how they responded. At the end of the semester, the professor reviewed the students' experiences. He was struck, he said, by the number of stories in which a student avoided challenging a friend who was involved in some hurtful or self-destructive behavior such as using drugs, cheating on an exam, driving drunk, engaging in irresponsible and promiscuous sex. The students justified their silence along the lines of Who am I to judge? Or I didn't want to risk our friendship.

Aristotle developed the ethics of friendship so that we can grow in our moral character.  

The professor told the students: "You give friendship a bad name. Whereas Aristotle made friends the basic of ethics, you made friendship the excuse for unethical behavior."

Do we make friendship, or family, or close relationships an excuse for unethical behavior?  Do we fail to “Warn the wicked” because we are afraid of losing the friendship, rocking the boat, or not keeping the peace? 

So how do we “Warn the Wicked?” 

Call to mind that person that you know is going down a bad path and try to think of ways that you can intervene. 

The gospel makes it very clear that, what is known in Catholic Social Teaching as, the Principal of Subsidiary is the most loving way to deal with people who “sin against us.” 

First, “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”  Go to the person first and tell them what you see without blame or judgment.  Help them to understand the harm that they are doing to you or others. 

Second, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'”  Notice Jesus says, “One or two people”.  He doesn’t give us permission to trash the person, or spread rumors, or scapegoat.  We are supposed to ask a couple of other people if they have witnessed the same behavior.  Maybe they haven’t and maybe it is just us.  But if they have then take the two of them and go together so that the person in sin can see from a couple other perspectives of people that care enough to help. 

Third, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”  Take it to someone who is a leader in the church community.  The priest, the pastoral minister, or lay leader of a group.  This can be someone that can help mediate. 

Finally, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.  It is here that we can return to the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel

But if you warn the wicked,
trying to turn him from his way,
and he refuses to turn from his way,
he shall die for his guilt,
but you shall save yourself.

Ultimately we cannot change someone else.  We can give them opportunities to see the harm that they are doing to themselves and others, but it may come to the point that we have to commend them to the care of God. 

We are obliged to “Warn the Wicked” and Jesus gives very practical ways to do it. 

If we know someone who is trapped in sin or getting off course, we do have a serious obligation and moral responsibility to intervene.  The best of friends are the ones who take this risk.  A true friend loves us enough to do this. 

“Warn the Wicked” and you will live. 

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