Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
04 Sep 2020
Carmen Nanko-Fernández

Reading 1: Ezekiel 33:7-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Reading 2: Romans 13:8-10
Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

Our contexts impact how we interpret scripture.

I confess that reading the closing words of this Sunday’s gospel from Matthew in a time of pandemic takes on new meaning and raises fresh questions.  The typically comforting affirmation that wherever “two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” now causes alarm. Are those who are gathered wearing masks and practicing social distancing protocols to mutually protect all? How might Paul’s entreaty to the Romans to love neighbor as self provide a way for Christians to comprehend such health and safety guidance in terms of both loving self and doing no evil to others? Who in our society, nation, families, and educational and religious communities functions like the watch-keeper in Ezekiel calling us to responsible behavior?

The psalmist sings, harden not your hearts to our accountability to God and each other, lived out in this time of suffering and risk by adhering to the simplest of measures that are mutually beneficial.

Try engaging our lectionary texts from the complexity of our current civil unrest. How do these same words ring when we are confronted again by the reality that our national relationships have long been predicated by an assumption that Black lives do not matter at all or as much? Our own Catholic Church cannot whitewash our non-innocent history with token symbolic gestures. Can we claim a moral high ground as keepers of the watch calling out others without addressing the ongoing consequences of racist legacies within our own structures, parishes, schools, religious orders, lay societies, dioceses and archdioceses? How many times do Black Catholics have to establish every fact on the testimony of a cloud of multiple witnesses? Rafael, Celestina and Gregoria Cordero Molina. Augustus Tolton. Thomas Wyatt Turner. Mary Antona Ebo, FSM. Martin de Porres (Patricia) Grey, RSMThea Bowman, FSPA. Cyprian Davis, OSB. Jamie Phelps, OP. Shawn Copeland. Bryan Massingale. Diana Hayes. And the list goes on. Love of neighbor is a not an abstraction. As noted by Paul, it is concretely spelled out in the commandments. These commandments should guide our relationships. Yet what if this nation is built, in part, on a foundation of violence and violations — of ancestors’ lives stolen, lands coveted, the innocent and unarmed killed? What should be held loosed and bound and who determines the parameters of reparation and forgiveness?

The psalmist admonishes harden not your hearts to our accountability for sinful legacies that benefit some at the expense of others who have been historically disenfranchised.

In this disquieting age, as citizens contemplate decisions that will determine the future of national and local leadership, these same texts are unsettling. Latino theologian Justo González cautions us that “the ‘apolitical’ Christianity that many advocate is in truth a Christianity that supports the politics that exist, that is, the power of those who are presently powerful” (Mañana, 83). How might such a perspective influence our engagement with these socio-political texts from both Testaments? The obligation of the keeper of the watch “to dissuade the wicked from their way” is an ongoing responsibility, not one that begins on the eve of an election.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Romans is the second half of a longer and more complex response by Paul to the issue of the relationship of Jesus-followers to authority. The seven verses that precede our lectionary reading grapple specifically with expectations in relation to Roman imperial authority (Rom 13: 1-7). This passage should be familiar because it was deployed by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 to justify the administration’s policy and practice of separating children from their migrant parents. During the 19th century, it was marshalled to support the Fugitive Slave Act. Some particular interpretations of this text continue to be used to undergird “law and order” rhetoric, especially in some Christian circles. Paul’s assertion that “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” cannot be read in isolation from the rest of Romans 13. Imperial authority is not absolute, and love demands an honest reckoning with all evil done to neighbor in the name of authority.

The psalmist proclaims harden not your hearts to our accountability in all matters, because we are subject in conscience to the creative Love that made us neighbor and kin to each other.


Carmen Nanko-Fernández
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry
Director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program

Justo L. González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990).
Lincoln Mullen, “The Fight to Define Romans 13,” The Atlantic, June 15, 2018,