Today’s Gospel reading1 is definitely among my favorites, as it makes one thing very clear: Jesus did not come to set up a new club for the “good.” Instead, he and the Church are here for sinners:
While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)Maybe the word “sinner” sounds uncomfortable, antiquated and out of fashion today, but I believe it can be read more broadly here as failure, outcast, disgraced, rather than only in the moral theology sense (i.e., as someone rejecting God’s call to love (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §397)). I don't mean set up failure in general and moral errors as an identity, but instead suggest that Jesus referred to the attitude of his “righteous” contemporaries towards those whom they considered failures. In other words, it is Jesus’ peers who equated sin not only with moral failure but also with mental or physical illness (considered to be a punishment for sin - either the patient’s own or that of their ancestors3) and with living at the margins of society.2 The “righteous” of the first century (and of today), considered sinners unworthy of Jesus’ company and would have preferred to have them out of sight. “Eugh, what do you want with those types, Jesus? They are not good, decent folk, pillars of the community, like us! They are not the sort of people who come to church!”
Jesus’ response is a sharp, sarcastic jab: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” While I have for a long time though that Jesus refers to those that the Pharisees complain about as sinners, I now believe that a much better fit to this event is to take him as talking about the Pharisees themselves. By reprimanding them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, he is charging them with having sinned against God’s call to love. The Pharisees are the ones in need of a physician too, but their self-righteousness blinds them to their own lack of openness and charity.
Applying this to myself makes me examine my own attitude to those that strike me as unfit for building relationships with. By sacrificing them to my own false sense of superiority (even if unwittingly at times), I place myself besides the Pharisees rather than in the circle around Jesus, where were are all weak, but where were have Him amongst us. I'll start again tomorrow!
1 Incidentally, it is the feast of St. Matthew today, who’s call to follow Jesus precedes the passage quoted here.
2 Incredibly this attitude persists in some societies to this day …
3 See, e.g., “If you listen closely to the voice of the LORD, your God, and do what is right in his eyes: if you heed his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not afflict you with any of the diseases with which I afflicted the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26) and “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5), but don’t ignore the next verse: “but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” which is another way of saying that God’s love is disproportionately greater than any punishment :). Also, see “The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. Justice belongs to the just, and wickedness to the wicked.” (Ezekiel 18:20) – just picking a single verse tends to be a great way to come up with nonsense …