Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation/Serra Club Mass
No doubt we are meant to find some comfort in this gospel scene. Jesus picks out Matthew, a customs officer, a Jew who works for the Romans as a tax-collector. Jesus says to Matthew, “Follow me.” And he does. Jesus takes Matthew to his table and eats with him and other notorious sinners—an unclean act for an observant Jew! And the Pharisees are scandalized. They question Jesus’ students, “Why does your Master eat with sinners?” And Jesus gives them an answer that probably shocked the puritanical Pharisees but comforts us in our self-conscious frailty: “The well don’t need a doctor,” Jesus says, “but the sick do…I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” We do find this comforting. But there’s nothing comfortable about it. The biblical tradition Jesus is calling on here is this: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And there is perhaps nothing more disconcerting to comfort than mercy.
Have you ever found yourself defending your fallenness by saying, “Like Jesus said, ‘The well don’t need a doctor.’” Or maybe when you have fallen into sin you say on your own behalf, “Thank God Jesus came to call sinners. . .” What are we doing when we use these phrases in this way? Obviously, we’re quoting Jesus from today’s gospel, but are we doing getting at the root of the teaching here or just casting off a line, hoping to excuse a sin? There is a way in which we can use these phrases to be flippant about our fallenness and our redemption in Christ Jesus. There is a way in which this fundamental lesson on mercy can be turned into a divine permission slip for ignoring disobedience.
Let your own experience bear this out: how often have you heard faithful Christians use the phrase “but Jesus ate with sinners” to gloss over the notorious public sin of those who would use a veneer of Catholicism to lend social credibility to their otherwise starkly barren spiritual lives? The implication of the excuse seems to be that by eating with sinners Jesus somehow teaches us that the sin of a notorious sinner isn’t sin at all. This is simply false. Jesus is, in fact, demonstrating something far more profound with unclean act, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
How much easier it is for us to accept punishment for our sins than it is to accept mercy! There is in us something that seems to demand balance, desire recompense; something that wants our faults whipped but not eliminated entirely. Do you ever feel justified in sinning again b/c you feel like you’ve been punished already? We want to sacrifice! We want there to be clean and unclean acts, good and bad attitudes; we want these b/c we want boundaries; we want totems and taboos. There is something immensely comforting about being told, “Do no cross the line!” Great. Now I know where to stop. The road is not endless. And Jesus is truly messing things up when he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Mercy is a wild freedom, a near chaotic dispersal of undeserved forgiveness, of amnesty broadcast unbounded; mercy is health freed from medicine, the good end without the ugly means; mercy comes from sacrifice but not from any sacrifice you and I are capable of making. That sacrifice, made once for all, was made and is still being made by the Physician himself.
He can eat with sinners—and he calls them unequivocally “sinners”—b/c he is the sacrifice that will bring them to healing. He does not require an atoning sacrifice of them b/c he is the willing sacrifice for us all, once for all, and what he desires from us, his disciples and children, is that we live our lives—lives given to us—in the discomforting messes of mercy: that great destroyer of expected balance, the needful waster of perfectly good self-righteousness.
If you are prepared to welcome the spiritual anarchy of Christ’s mercy into your sinful life, then follow him to the table where the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the pro-abortion politicians, the war-mongers, where all your favorite sinners eat. Show mercy. And do not demand from them the sacrifice that was never demanded of you.