“The word of the Lord was addressed to me as follows: ‘Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the house of Israel.’ ”
These words, addressed to the Prophet Ezekiel, underline a key element in the prophetic office. The prophet was, above all else, the conscience of his people. He kept alive among the people the vision of God’s justice and loving kindness and, in cases of transgression, recalled the people to the covenant of love that had been their very foundation.
The Prophet Ezekiel took this responsibility further. He insisted on a collective moral responsibility binding the nation together. The whole people were entrusted with upholding the values given to them by God in the law. They themselves were to identify and challenge moral decline. If they failed in this duty they themselves, together with the transgressor, would be held responsible. “If you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, however, you warn a wicked man, and he does not repent, you will have saved your life.”
These words seem uncompromising to the flexible values of a permissive society. Many are reluctant to pass judgment on the values of others. Sadly, the recent riots have powerfully demonstrated that compromising the standards by which a society lives does not always guarantee its wellbeing. Confronted with the murder of his brother Abel, Cain asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The unspoken answer in this primeval drama is “yes”. Yes, we are responsible for each other, for the Lord has created us in love to respond to him and each other in love. We do this by rejoicing in the good and calling to repentance all that is evil. This is an inescapable consequence of what the Lord has called us to be together.
Jesus developed this in the instructions that he gave to his disciples for the governance of the community: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens, you have won back your brother.”
This was something more than a charter for the self- righteous. Jesus went on to explain that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst. As the Church, we are Christ’s presence in the world, a living witness to his love. Only in the safeguarding of that love are we called to confront all that is contrary to the Gospel. It is in a spirit of love, rather than vindication, that we must sometimes challenge each other.
St Paul expressed this perfectly. “Avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love. If you love your fellow men you have carried out your obligations. Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour.”
The Prophet Ezekiel charged ancient Israel with the responsibility of challenging the questionable values of his own generation. St Paul, reflecting on the teaching of Christ, clearly enunciated what must always be the basis of any moral challenge. It is from love, rather than from any imagined superiority, that we must sometimes challenge each other. Thus we both honour and build up the presence of Christ.