Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto, Ontario.
The best flavour of ice cream in the entire world is chocolate peanut butter. In my humble opinion, at least. I love this flavour of ice cream so much that I cannot keep it in the house. When I do have it in the house, I am unable to control myself and I usually eat the entire pint in one sitting.
My preference 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. Someone else can prefer another flavour, but that difference of opinion doesn’t really affect either of us.
My opinion on this matter does not really present a problem for others.
However, there would be a real problem if, for some reason, I believed my ice cream preference was not just an opinion but was something that needed to be the truth for all people. Worse would be if I formed an alliance with all the other people who loved chocolate peanut butter ice cream and we lobbied for laws requiring that only chocolate peanut butter ice cream be manufactured and it be the only flavour of ice cream consumed.
This example sounds over-the-top. However, it is not far from the way that people today mistake their opinions and preferences for the “truth.” Our society is so individualistic that we all think our opinions are the truth and everyone else ought to hold the same truths that we hold.
Sadly, most people now think their “opinion” is the “truth” and of greater value than The Truth, as revealed by God. Some people will even argue very strongly that there is no such thing as “objective truth” and that everything is relative based upon individual tastes and preferences.
Today, everyone is believed to be free to determine their own morality and to decide what is right or wrong for themselves. This subjective relativism has become so strong that matters as fundamental as when life begins and which lives have value have become matters of opinion in our society. We live in an age in which truth is entirely relative and subjective – something personal for each individual to decide for him or herself.
The idea that each individual is free to determine the truth by him or herself is entirely rejected by the Scriptures. God works very hard to save humanity from falling into this selfish notion that each person can determine what is right or wrong for him or herself. 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 they 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. But if Ezekiel does call the sinner to convert, but the sinner fails to their 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.
The same mission is given to the Church, as we see in this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew. Over the past few Sundays, we have heard Jesus speak about the mission He entrusted to Church: to tell all people of His love and salvation. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the Church’s role in correcting those who have developed an erroneous opinion and how they can be called back to the truth.
The premise of Jesus’ instructions for calling sinners back to the truth is that there is indeed an objective truth by which people’s actions can be evaluated against. This truth 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 so the sinner might change and have life eternal (which we see in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel).
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 tells us, the Church has the prophetic mission of announcing the truth so 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 St. 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.
We are living in 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 assumes they have the same right to make such decisions as they do to choose an ice cream flavour.
There are many things that we have the power to choose about in our lives; many things about which we can express a personal opinion.
However, there are other things 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 so they may 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 offers to each of us. Jesus calls us to turn away from selfishness and to love God above all things and our neighbour as ourselves. 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!”
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.
Editor’s note: Mint chocolate chip is the best ice cream flavour. That’s just a fact.