Sunday of week 10 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Hosea 6:3-6; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13

TODAY’S READINGS continue the theme of last Sunday where Jesus said it was not just those who said “Lord, Lord…” who would enter his Kingdom. In fact, as we will see, very strange people seem to find their way into it.

An unlikely candidate

The Gospel reading describes the call of one Matthew. Is it the evangelist himself? Current scholarship tends to believe that this gospel dates after the time of the disciples and that it was written by an anonymous scribe but, in the tradition of the time, the name of a well-known Christian was given as its author. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, the man in today’s story is called Levi.

On that day, something very special and totally unexpected came into this man’s life. The poetic words of the First Reading are realised here:

Let us set ourselves to know the Lord;

that he will come is as certain as the dawn

his judgement will rise like the light,

he will come to us as showers come,

like spring rains watering the earth.

Yes, the Lord comes to all of us in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. Matthew was ready when he came. Are we?

Certainly, Matthew was a highly unlikely candidate for discipleship. After all, he was a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in Jewish society of the time. Tax collectors never can be particularly popular, given their distasteful job but in Jesus’ time they were collecting taxes on behalf of a hated and pagan colonial ruler. As such they were seen as collaborators and traitors both to their own people and to their religion. The Romans had the custom of farming out the collection of taxes to volunteer agents. These paid up the amount that the Romans demanded and then had to get back the money from the people. In order to make a living from such work, they needed to collect more than they had paid the Romans. This was their “commission” but there was often an element of extortion and corruption in the whole practice.

Chosen to follow

Jesus now invites one of these despised people to be one of his chosen followers. We can imagine Matthew’s astonishment at being picked out in this way. It is a perfect example of Jesus looking beyond the exterior and the stereotype to the potential of the real person inside. It is a lesson for us who tend so quickly to make negative judgements of people, to stereotype and to scapegoat, to write people off. Matthew, the presumed avaricious tax agent, simply abandons his post, leaves everything behind and, full of trust, goes off after Jesus with little idea of what is in store for him.

Our God is indeed a God of surprises.

We see that in the Second Reading where Paul speaks of the faith and trust of Abraham in God. Abraham and Sarah, already quite old and despairing of having a son to carry on the family name, become parents. We are told that this happened because of Abraham’s trusting faith in God’s providential care for him and his confidence that God would be faithful to his promises.

A party in the house

Immediately after this Jesus is seen sitting “in the house” having dinner with his disciples when they are joined by a number of tax collectors and other public sinners.

Whose house was this? It could be either Matthew’s or the one where Jesus was staying. It seems more likely that it was Jesus’ house. This “house” occurs regularly in the Gospel as a place where Jesus gathers with his disciples and with others who come to sit at his feet and listen to him and experience his healing. It is a model of the Church where Christians gather for the same reason.

It was altogether natural for Matthew to celebrate his new calling by celebrating with his friends. And what other friends would a despised tax collector have than other tax collectors?

Scandal

However, some Pharisees, seeing this, are shocked. They ask the disciples (not Jesus, whose sharp tongue they had come to fear): “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In other words, if Jesus is a man of God and a teacher, how can he be seen in the company of people who are religiously unclean? To be in their company is to become contaminated and unclean also. It is even worse, if the meal is being taken in the house where Jesus is living. No rabbi of integrity would invite such ritually unclean people and religious outsiders into one’s house.

Overhearing them, Jesus replies: “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.” And he continues, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice’. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners.” Jesus is here quoting from the prophet Hosea in a passage found in today’s First Reading:

This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets,

why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth,

since what I want is love, not sacrifice;

knowledge of God, not holocausts.

Purely religious activities like sacrifices, holocausts and, in our case, Masses, novenas, processions and pilgrimages, have no value unless behind them is a real knowledge and acceptance of God and his Way and unless our hearts are filled with a love for our brothers and sisters which is clearly evident in our actions.

A different point of view

Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by looking at the situation from a completely different perspective. The problem is not of Jesus becoming contaminated by the sinful and the unclean but rather their becoming healed by his presence and influence. The legally minded (the sacrifice makers) are only interested in themselves; those governed by love (the compassionate) think primarily of the needs of their brothers and sisters. There is no need for Jesus to spend time with the virtuous, with the already converted; it is those in spiritual and moral deprivation with whom he needs to spend his time.

The lesson of today’s readings is clearly relevant for our own day. When looking for potential followers of Christ where do we tend to look? How many times have we heard people wonder why God picked some people as Christian leaders – as priests, religious or lay people? When we look at the twelve apostles, they were indeed a strange bunch. Full of faults, fragile in their faith but in the end they started something extraordinary which today plays a central part of our lives.

And is it not true that a great deal of our pastoral energies are directed at the already converted? So much of our Christian activity is in maintenance, serving a dwindling and ageing number of churchgoers. Is it not true that those most in need of experiencing Christ’s love and healing are often left untouched by us?

How many places in our inner cities do we as Christians avoid because they are “not suitable” for “good Catholics”? Where is the presence of Christ visible in our offices and factories? In our bars, discos, and other places of entertainment? Not to mention our brothels, in our shelters for the indigent, the addict, the single mother and the homeless? If Jesus were in our city today, where would we expect to find him? In our suburban churches, in our presbyteries and convents, in our carefully manicured middle-class housing estates? Somehow I feel he would be fraternising in some of the seediest areas of our cities.

Jesus wants compassion and not sacrifice. In other words, his disciples are those who distinguish themselves in reaching out to those in need not those who spend their time in purely “religious” activities, who are careful to observe their Sunday “obligation” by being at Mass but who do nothing to reach out to those in need, except to drop a few pence in a collection plate.

Those who are really in need of healing

Ironically, in the Gospel story the Pharisees are also among the sick and in need of healing. Their narrow vision sees virtue in the literal keeping of religious rules and prevents them seeing the deeper love of God expressed in healing the sinner and the outcast. The words of the First Reading apply to them: “This love of yours is like a morning cloud, like the dew that quickly disappears.” In fact, it was not love that motivated them but a self-serving and self-promoting complex of words and actions. It was not only devoid of compassion but sat in judgement on all those who did not conform to their vision.

If we are honest, we are not too different. We too are in need of healing so that the compassion of Jesus may be ours. It is compassion offered to those in whatever need which is the real sacrificial offering that God wants from us. Without that inner compassion, our participation in the sacrifice of the Eucharist becomes an empty sham.

Today, with Matthew, the Lord is calling us to go with him to join him in his work of seeking not the self-righteous but those who, one way or another, have fallen by the way. We, too, in some way are with them. We, too, need the healing and reconciling power of Jesus at work in us. And, in so far as we share that power, we extend it to others.

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