How lovely to see others through the eyes of mercy. And painful. At times it is necessary to see with those eyes the damage we do to one another when the faithful act unfaithfully through sexual sin. St. Paul gives us a powerful complement to Jesus’ command to ‘not judge’ when the Apostle implores us as church men and women to exercise wise judgments in regards to our fellows who have fallen into grievous sins. Why? St. Paul understood that unchecked sexual immorality had power in the believing community to impact the purity and holiness of others.
Paul’s Greco-Roman world differed significantly from the Hebrew community of Jesus in regards to sexuality and spirituality. The Apostle advanced the Gospel among citizens who worshipped many gods and goddesses and whose sexual practices reflected that diversity. Whereas Jesus liberated the poor from the legalistic shame of the Pharisee, St. Paul contended with the near shamelessness of new converts emerging out of an idolatrous, highly sensual world.
In I C 5, St. Paul describes a man in the Corinthian Church who was committing incest with his father’s wife. And the Church was proud of it! (1C 5:2) The severe nature of the sexual immorality at hand coupled with an arrogant tolerance of the sin inspired St. Paul to exhort the members of Christ’s body at Corinth: ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside of the church? Are you not to judge those inside? Expel the wicked brother from among you.’(12, 13)
In other words, we must discern when the integrity of the Church is being violated. That matters to Jesus and it should matter to us: we must each do our part when members are violating each other.
St. Paul clearly is ‘passing judgment’ on this Corinthian man, and he does so without reservation. His reasons are clear: tolerating sexual immorality among believers has an especially pernicious impact on the whole: ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’ (v. 6) Such tolerance undermines the moral standards of the community overall.
Commenting on Paul’s judgment and discipline of this man, Pauline scholar Dr. Robert Gagnon writes: ‘If the Church refuses to take a firm stand against an obvious and severe violation of sexual immorality then its resistance to other types of sexual immorality will be weakened beyond repair.’
Unlike Jewish disciples who were subject to myriad regulations concerning sexual purity, the Corinthians boasted of their sexual liberties as a sign of their progressive, grace-filled faith. St. Paul reminded them in Chapters 6 and 7 of the power of the human body to bind them to intimate communion with God or to other gods and goddesses. He is simply applying Jesus’ mandate: serial, unrepentant immoral behavior puts one at risk from inheriting the Kingdom of God. (Matt. 5: 27-30: Jesus implores us to destroy what stumbles us so we can avoid hell!)
St. John the Apostle invokes the same principle in regards to ‘tolerating’ the prophetess Jezebel whose teaching ‘led the servants of God into sexual immorality’ at the church in Thyatira. The Apostle prophesies intense suffering for all in the church who fail to repent (Rev. 2: 20-23). Strong language: both St. John and St. Paul bring judgment, a sword intended to separate the holy from the defiled in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
That integrity includes the invitation for the defiled to repent unto the mercy of God. In truth, mercy motivates both John and Paul in their judgments. St. John invites the Thyatirans to turn away from their deception and so avoid suffering; St. Paul implores the Corinthians to turn the immoral man out of the fellowship so that his sin might be destroyed, his soul saved (1 C 4:5). The purging of impurity from the fellowship is married to the hope of restoration for the fallen.
The excesses at Corinth and Thyatira demanded decisive, divisive judgment in order to preserve the dignity of the faithful.
What matters to Jesus, to St. Paul and St. John and I think Pope Francis is that we do not over-emphasize the threat of others’ sexual immorality. We run the risk of magnifying ‘specks’ and missing our own planks.
Two keys here: although we can and must judge certain acts as being a grave, we must entrust ultimate judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.’ (CCC 186)
The basis for such moral discernment is our personal reckoning with moral vulnerabilities. Scripture and Church teaching command us over and over to make wise moral judgments about ourselves. The horizon Jesus has opened for us frees us to make wise moral judgments. And we must, if we want to engender life in our fellows, not confusion or lust or fear.
Solomon implores us to ‘preserve sound judgment and discernment; they will be life for you’, an antidote to not getting entrapped in sin. (PR 3: 21) ‘A man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself,’ (PR 6:32) and I dare say, his marriage too. How blessed we are, when through God’s mercy we have removed the plank from our own eye and can help our brother remove the speck in his.
We want our churches to be safe and clean sanctuaries. But still earthy and honest enough to welcome dirty sheep so they can have a fighting chance to become clean! Perhaps this is among Pope Francis’ main points: Rather than a Church which clings to its own security, He wants a church that is bruised and hurting because it has been out on the streets…‘ If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is because so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the light, strength, and consolation born of friendship with Jesus, and without a community of faith to support them…’ (EG 49)
Might we be empowered by a renewed Gospel that has power to open the horizon of others and grant them a new vision and a new hope for their lives? These men and women surround us in our daily lives: persons with SSA who are blinded by both homosexual fatalism and the stigmatism of the Pharisee.
Might we trust the truth that has set us free, divine love that surpasses our weaknesses and compels us to build bridges rather than walls with others? Let us not be content with being a tidy truthful church but a messy fruitful one. Let’s manifest the mercy that has power to open for all a whole new horizon.