SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ GN 23:1-4. 19;24:1-8. 62-67; PS 106:1-5; MT 9:9-13 ]
Tax collectors were the most hated and despised of all peoples during the time of the Jews. They were considered as traitors and outcasts of society. They were worse than prostitutes because they not only cheated their own people in taxes but worked for their enemies. So they were marginalized. Any Jew involved in this trade was ostracized. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with them.
But this is the same attitude we have towards sinners and broken people. We are told to have nothing to do with them. We are often told not to mix with bad company, and those who have no morals. If it is because we know we are weak and are susceptible to their influence, it is understandable that we should avoid the occasion of sin. So this in itself is not wrong. It is a sign of humility to know that we might fall into temptations if we associate with them. But it is a different matter when we stay away from these people because we think that we are superior to them. When we have a disdain for them and are too proud to be among them, that is the sin of pride.
In the first reading, we can appreciate Abraham and those who were chosen to be people of the Covenant. In the Old Testament, it was necessary to protect the Israelites who were living among the Canaanites, considered to be worse than pagans. So when Abraham settled in Canaan, he gave specific instructions to his steward to find a wife for his son, Isaac, from among his kinsfolk. “Abraham said to the eldest servant of his household, the steward of all his property, ‘Place your hand under my thigh, I would have you swear by the Lord God of heaven and God of earth, that you will not choose a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. Instead, go to my own land and my own kinsfolk to choose a wife for my son Isaac.’” This is to ensure that the purity of the faith, the culture and the peoples would be preserved. As Israel was still a small nation, it was always in danger of being contaminated by the pagan cultures surrounding them. This was the reason for the insistence of keeping Israel apart from the rest of the peoples; not out of pride but out of fear.
Unfortunately, during the time of Jesus, the motive became one of superiority rather than self-protection. The Pharisees considered themselves as the “Separated Ones”, that is, set apart for holiness. They would not do anything that could make them unclean or unfit for rituals. They were obsessed with ritual purity. But they became presumptuous. They began to look down on those who could not keep meticulously all the laws of Moses and the detailed elaboration of these laws in practical terms. This explains why when Jesus “was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”
But this was not the attitude of Christ towards those who were sinners. He replied, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. 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 came to show the mercy of God. He came for sinners. He came for those who are struggling in their sins. He knows we are weak. He sees how much we are struggling. He knows that we are born sinners with a wounded nature. We are grasping for more because of the desire to preserve ourselves. He also knows how we are entrapped by the culture around us, especially the secular, promiscuous, individualistic and consumerist environment. It is not easy to transcend the culture we are in.
Above all, Jesus sees the saint in every sinner. He has tremendous hope in man. He knows that even though man is weak, he has great potential to be like Christ in love and in service. When we fall, He raises us up because He knows that if we keep believing in ourselves, we will eventually become the person we are called to be. That is why He does not condemn sinners. He knows that we are sinners called to be saints in Him. For this reason, when “he saw a man named Matthew sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” He saw the great potential in Matthew even though the people would have written him off. Yet, Jesus chose from among the most hated and despised lost souls, one to be His apostles. Jesus believed that such people were not condemned. This is the great faith Jesus has in us human beings, sinners that we are.
He saw sinners, broken people and those without faith and morals as sick people. He said, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.” What is our attitude towards the sick? Do we condemn them? No! We show mercy to the sick and the suffering. Those who live in sin are also sick in their mind and in their heart. They too need our mercy and compassion, not our judgment and condemnation. They are wounded and injured because of their past, the sins of society and their own fears and anger that caused them to sin further. So to sick people, we are called to be compassionate, understanding and forgiving. This was the case of Jesus when He saw the tax-collectors and sinners. He had nothing but sorrow and compassion for them.
To such wounded and sick people, we are called to reach out to them. That is why Jesus ate and drank with them. The only way to heal them is to begin, not by moralizing or condemning them, or worse still to exclude them, but by loving them. He gave Matthew his dignity as a son of God. He affirmed the goodness in Matthew. Jesus brought out the inherent goodness and virtues in Matthew. This was what He did with all sinners. By accepting them for what they are, He showed them His genuine love and friendship for them. He did not tell them to change their lives. But He first demonstrated to them that they are loved by God by eating and drinking with them. He offered them His friendship without conditions and reservations. In other words, Jesus was telling them that regardless of what we do, we are the children of God. He loves us for who we are; not for what we are. Only when we are loved for who we are, and recognize the dignity of our sonship and daughtership in Christ, can we then begin to live like Christ. Jesus did not come as judge but to offer us the unconditional love and mercy of God.
Unconditional love and acceptance is the first stage to the healing process. Unless we are loved unconditionally, we will not be able to accept ourselves and our weaknesses. The more wrongs we do, the more we hate ourselves. And if we hate ourselves, we cannot love others as well. We also become judgmental and presumptuous. Those of us who do not live the life we are called to, do so because we do not believe that we are loved for who we are. The more we try to prove ourselves, the more we fail. But if we discover that we are loved as children of God, this realization will enable the doing to flow from our being. Mattthew was accepted and loved. Hence, he was transformed in love.
We too have been given the grace at baptism and anointed like Christ to bring God’s love and mercy to the poor, the sick, the wounded and all sinners. Like Abraham who claimed his possession of Canaan by buying the burial plot for his wife, we too must claim our baptismal rights of being the anointed one of Christ. We are called to be like the Messiah to bear the good news of salvation to all. Abraham was convicted of God’s promise for him when he instructed his servant to bring the wife of Isaac back to Canaan. “The Lord, God of heaven and God of earth, took me from the land of my kinsfolk, and he swore to me that he would give this country to my descendants. He will now send his angel ahead of you, so that you may choose a wife for my son there.”
How can we exercise this mission of mercy and inclusivity? We must recognize our own humanity and sinfulness. But equally, we must accept first and foremost the love of God for us. Hence, Jesus took upon our humanity to identify with us in our sinful humanity. St Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21). He became man to assume our humanity. He was baptised for our sake. He carried our infirmities in His body. “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Mt 8:17) Jesus was identified with us in every way except sin. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:15f). We too when we can identify ourselves as one like Matthew, a tax-collector and an outcast, but now loved and accepted by God in Christ, we too will be able to reach out to other tax-collectors as Matthew did by inviting them to meet Jesus, the love of God in person.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone.