Year A: Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Call of Matthew
Matthew 9: 9-13
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 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.”
- “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In what ways does this statement of Jesus challenge you personally. Do you struggle with being merciful over being scrupulous?
- Do you feel superior to anyone? Why is it a spiritual “red flag” to feel superior to others?
- Have you ever been torn between obedience to the law or a teaching and to what you considered “the loving thing to do”? What were the circumstances? How did you resolve the situation?
- How has your brokenness been an opening for mercy toward others, or resulted in your growing closer to God? Explain.
Matthew 9: 9-13
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
We move now to chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Galilean area performing many acts of power. Immediately before today’s reading Jesus has not only healed a paralytic but has told the paralytic that his sins are forgiven (Matt 9:2b). The scribes have taken offense. They considered Jesus’ remark blasphemous because only God can forgive sins.
In today’s Gospel Jesus continues to trigger the disapproval and anger of some of the Jewish religious leaders. They do not think that Jesus should spend time with sinners. Of course, Jesus spends time with the leaders, but they do not realize that in doing that Jesus is spending time with sinners.
Our reading starts with a call story. Jesus passes by, sees Matthew, and says, “Follow me.” And Matthew “got up and followed him.” Our response to this story might well be, “Wasn’t it unwise of Matthew to respond so quickly without giving the matter more thought?” As we discussed on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, call stories picture the disciples responding instantly in order to emphasize the wholehearted response necessary for discipleship. The story is teaching that to become a disciple of Jesus Christ a person must make following Jesus his or her top priority.
Next we read that Jesus is at table with many tax collectors and sinners. In the call story we are not told that Matthew himself is a tax collector. That is stated in Matthew 10:3, when we are given the names of the twelve apostles.
“Tax collectors” and “sinners,” the two groups named, are groups who have been marginalized by society. Tax collectors were marginalized because they were suspected of disloyalty and extortion: disloyalty because they were Jews who were collecting taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Roman occupiers; extortion because their own income came from whatever they charged in addition to the tax demanded by the Romans. Sinners, from the Pharisees’ point of view. Were people who were, for one reason or another, unclean: that is. These “sinners” were not as strict about obeying the laws regarding ritual purity as were the Pharisees.
On observing Jesus actually sharing a table with these traitors and with the ritually unclean the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples, does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” We can hear the self-righteous and judgmental attitude behind the question. Obviously, the Pharisees feel superior to these marginalized people.
Jesus hears their question, as well as the attitude behind it. In answer, Jesus first quotes a well-known proverb found in Greek writings: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. This is simply common sense. As a spiritual physician Jesus would give his attention to those who need spiritual healing. Next Jesus quotes the Book of the prophet Hosea, in which God says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). With this statement Jesus is telling the Pharisees that their own spiritual perceptions are out of balance. They lack mercy toward their fellow sinners at the same time that they are scrupulous about obeying the law. This is not what God desires.
Jesus concludes with an ironic statement: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” The word righteous is ironic. Jesus means self-righteous. Jesus came to call everyone, including the Pharisees. However, as long as the Pharisees think of themselves as righteous and only “those other people” as sinners they will not respond to the call.
As Matthew’s Gospel continues, we will see that Matthew emphasizes the growing animosity between Jesus and his critics. This is because Matthew is addressing the question, “If Jesus is the new Moses with authority from God to give a new law, why did the leaders of his own religious tradition want him silenced?” Matthew emphasizes that those religious leaders who wanted to silence Jesus were self-righteous legalists who refused to accept Jesus’ teaching. In today’s story Jesus is teaching that God loves and wants to save sinners.
Learning the Meaning of Mercy
In an article on aging and life review, there was a story about an older man who stood in front of a full-length mirror and beat himself with both his fists, pummeling his face and torso. He did this steadily and unemotionally, without screaming or comment. The nursing staff could not get him to stop, and eventually they had to put him in restraints.
The explanation for this self-flagellating behavior was simple and terrifying. In the process of his life review, the man remembered and fixated on his many mistakes. In his eyes his choices and actions were always wrong, and he could find no forgiveness for what he had done. His judgment on himself was negative, and so he carried out his own punishment. C.S. Lewis once remarked, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” This man was in hell, and he had lost the key. He could not release himself from his own prison.
Although this man is an extreme example, many people have faced this same negative examination of conscience, especially in later life. When we look back at the decisions we made and the actions we performed, we are not satisfied. We do not accept our “one and only life.” Rather we feel that we have “blown it.” Add to this the fact that time is running out, and we begin to feel the quiet desperation of a life lived the wrong way.
Our attempts to modify this self-evaluation are unconvincing. We cannot justify what we have done. Although we may fabricate many excuses, none completely exonerates us. We realize the only righteousness we can manage will be bought at the price of self-deception. So, we give up justifying ourselves “before the eyes of others” (see Luke 16:15) and enter the category of “tax collectors and sinners.” What we do not know is that this recognition of failure has turned us into the people whom Jesus seeks out, the people ready to hear about the mercy of God.
We seriously entertain the mercy of God when we come to the place the First Letter of John articulates: “by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20). When our hearts condemn us, we open to God who is greater than our hearts and who has more comprehensive knowledge. This more comprehensive knowledge is sometimes characterized as a steadfast love that sustains the person even though the thoughts and actions of the person are unacceptable. In our negative evaluation of ourselves, we have confused who we are with what we have done.
However, God’s mercy is clear sighted. It reestablishes the person anew in each moment. Although we will have to bear the negative consequences of our past actions, we are not defined by those actions or consequences. The mercy of God reminds us that we are not irredeemable sinners but temporarily lost sons and daughters. We can rest and be renewed in this greater knowledge of God, a mercy that softens our fierce and narrow condemnations.
As consoling as this “greater than our condemning hearts” thought may be, there is another version of the mercy of God. This version does not focus on our sinfulness: evil actions, their consequences, and the rehabilitation of the person. It focuses on our finitude, the choices we have made, and the paths we have taken. In the film classic, Babette’s Feast, Babette makes a magnificent meal for a small, aging religious community. Many of them are reviewing their life choices and wondering if they have chosen rightly.At the table is General Lowenhielm who has never married. The woman whom he loves is also at the table. He offers a toast that begins with a verse from Psalm 85,“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another” (cf.v. 10: NRSV; v. 11 NAB). Then he continues,
Man in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risk he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we get back even what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.
Mercy is the realization that our lives are redeemed by ever higher appreciations, ever higher perspectives. Our task is to await mercy with confidence and receive it with gratitude.
Jesus suggests that the scribes and Pharisees go and learn the meaning of mercy. Mercy is not a single act, but the sea in which we swim. It gives hope to both our sinfulness and our finitude.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.