In my opinion, the best flavour of ice cream in the entire world is chocolate peanut butter. I love this flavour of ice cream so much that I cannot keep any in the house. When, and if, I do keep it in the house, I am unable to control myself and I usually eat the whole pint in one sitting.
The preference that I have for chocolate peanut butter ice cream is a personal opinion. The fact that I like it, is a truth that is relative only to myself. Others may have different opinions and it does not really affect my opinion or their ability to have a different opinion. My opinion on this matter does not really present a problem for others.
On the other hand, there would be a real problem if for some reason, I believed that my opinion needed to become a truth for all people. If for some reason, I believed that everyone else had to share my preference for chocolate peanut butter ice cream, my insistence on this issue would begin to infringe on the right of others to have an opinion. Worse, still, would be the case if I were to form an alliance with all the other people who loved chocolate peanut butter ice cream and we worked together to lobby for laws that required that only chocolate peanut butter ice cream could be manufactured. We could demand that no other flavours be manufactured and that all people must eat our flavour of ice cream. Taking our efforts to the extreme, we could demand that everyone eat chocolate peanut butter ice cream and perhaps put at risk the lives of those people who have a severe allergy to peanuts.
This example sounds a little over-the-top. However, it is not far off from the way in which people today mistake their opinions and preferences for the “truth.” Our society has become so individualistic that we all think that our opinions are the truth and that all others ought to hold the same truths that we hold.
The sad consequence of this situation is that most people think that their “opinion” is the “truth” and of greater value then The Truth, as revealed by God. Some people will argue very strongly today that there is no such thing as an “objective truth” and that everything is relative based upon individual taste and preference. So strong is this kind of subjective relativism in our culture that it has become a matter of opinion as to when life begins and which lives have value in our society. Today, all are believed to be free to determine their own morality and to decide what is right or wrong for themselves. We live in an age in which truth is entirely relative and subjective and regarded as being a personal decision for each individual to decide for him or herself.
This idea that each individual is free to determine for him or herself the truth about what is right and wrong is entirely rejected by the Scriptures. This selfish notion that each person can determine what is right or wrong for him or herself is something that God works very hard to save the human person from falling into. We see this in this Sunday’s first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. The prophet is sent to the people of Israel so that the people may know right from wrong and not die in their sin.
The prophet Ezekiel is told that he must announce the truth to those who are self-deceived and living in sin. God tells Ezekiel that if he does not announce this truth, he will be held responsible for not calling the sinner to conversion. If Ezekiel does call the sinner to conversion, but the sinner fails to change ways, the responsibility for the sin will be upon the sinner. The central assumption of Ezekiel’s mission is that there is a truth that has been revealed by God and it is up to Ezekiel to announce this truth in his role as God’s prophet.
We see that this same mission is given to the Church in this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew. Over the past few Sunday’s, we have heard Jesus speaking about the Church and the mission that He is entrusting to it in order that all people might know His salvation and love. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking of the role of the Church in correcting those who have developed an erroneous opinion and how they can be called back to the truth.
The premise of the instructions that Jesus gives to His disciples so that they may call sinners back to the truth is that there is an objective truth by which the actions of members of the community can be evaluated against. This truth is something that can be agreed upon and it is articulated by the teaching authority of the Church. We are told of this truth as Jesus tells His disciples that when someone in the community has gone astray of the Church, that person should be approached individually and spoken with. In the event that he or she will not listen, bring them to a few people “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if that person refuses to listen to the Church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Now the point of bringing the one who is deceived about the truth to the Church is not so that they may be simply required to admit that the other party is right and they are wrong. The only point for such correction is that which we see in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel, which is that the sinner might change and have life eternal. The truth must also be announced by the Church so that others may not be deceived and follow after the example of those who have been deceived by their own opinions and preferences. As Jesus speaks of it, the Church has the prophetic mission of announcing the truth so that all may be saved. Part of the Church’s mission involves pointing out when individuals and societies have gone astray from the truth in a manner that presents a threat to the dignity of life and the value of God’s created world.
We see that the apostle Paul takes very seriously the Church’s mission of announcing the Good News as he proclaims in this Sunday’s second reading: “Brothers and sisters: Owe no one anything, 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 murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” This is the kind of clear teaching that Jesus establishes the Church to make in every age to all people. It is a teaching that contains an objective truth that cannot change as a result of personal preferences and circumstances.
Today we are living at a time when people think they have the right to choose when life begins and when life ends; both for themselves and for other people. It is assumed that they have the same right to make this decision as they do to choose their favorite flavor of ice cream.
There are many things that each of us have the power to choose about in our lives; many things about which we can express a personal opinion.
However, there are other things about which God has given us commandments about and truths that He has revealed to us for our salvation. Against God’s commandments and revealed truths, my own opinions are worthless. If I wish to follow Christ and know salvation, I must put aside my opinions and follow Christ’s teachings. I look to the Church to call me from my sinful ways to the truth of Jesus Christ.
Ezekiel was sent to call the people of Israel to turn away from their selfish ways towards God and be saved. Jesus entrusts this same prophetic mission to His Church.
The mission of the Church is to call you and I to recognize that the truth does matter and to remind us that we are to find salvation in the truth which Christ’s offers to each of us. Jesus calls us to turn away from selfishness and to love God above all things and our neighbour as our selves. By doing this, Christ invites all of us to know the fullness of life and to be saved.
As we hear the psalm response today, let us pray that if we are called to hear God’s truth today and to turn away from sin, we too may pray: “O that today [we] would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden [our]hearts!”
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario.
This reflection is based on the readings for the twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; and Matthew 18:21-35.