Readings (Year A):
Reflection: Just accountability
A lot of us have a complicated relationship with the word “accountability.” In our hyper-individualist society, many of us grow up believing we are accountable only to ourselves, and to whatever version of God we have inevitably created in our own image. When someone else does something bad, it’s not our fault and it’s not our problem—unless, of course, it is so bad that it breaks a law, and in that case, it’s off to prison with offender (assuming they’re found guilty, of course) or to the travails of internet justice.
This is strikingly different from the image of just accountability that today’s readings present to us. Rather than ignoring someone’s harmful behavior or flying off immediately to report it to the authorities, both the first reading from Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew give detailed instructions on how it is the responsibility of every community member to—lovingly—hold their neighbors accountable for their actions. When we see wrongdoing happening around us, we are tasked by God to intervene: not just to stop the harm from being done, but also to bring our neighbor back into right relationship with the community. We don’t have to do it alone: Jesus invites us to appeal to friends and family for help. But we do have to do it. Otherwise, we become bystanders, bearing real responsibility of our own for the harm we chose not to stop.
If you’re like me, though, there’s a part of these readings that makes my skin crawl, and it’s actually not because of the natural discomfort that comes with calling out bad behavior and calling in a neighbor. It’s because we’ve seen this message twisted and taken in a horrible direction. We’ve seen extreme fundamentalist Christians like the Westboro Baptist Church calling out what they deem to be bad behavior—usually just someone living authentically as a queer person, or practicing a different religion—and justifying their cruelty with Bible verses like this. It’s an act of “love,” they say, to call people out in this derogatory, threatening, and very public way.
So how do we honor these readings’ insistence on accountability without becoming cruel, pedantic, and hypocritical? Jesus tells us: If calling in our neighbors to seek justice doesn’t work, don’t dig in our heels; treat them like Gentiles or tax collectors. And how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He befriended them. He dined with them. He healed them. He spoke to them and listened to them. It’s a clever way to trip us disciples into loving people harder. There will be times when maintaining firm boundaries is necessary to stay safe, especially if we are the ones being harmed. But we are not called to give up on each other, or on ourselves, or on the very real and ever-present possibility of redemptive love. Real love, which “does no evil to the neighbor,” as St. Paul tells us today, and therefore “is the fulfillment of the law.”