Matthew the sinner, now a saint – your past does not define your future. (Matthew 9:9-13)
On reading today’s Gospel text, you will notice that the Pharisees do not say, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors who are sinners” but rather they say, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors AND sinners.” While both groups are abhorred by the Jewish religious establishment, it is not clear that tax collectors were considered sinners; perhaps they were considered social outcasts because they connived with the Romans.
Scholars have long debated precisely whom the term sinners designated in the ancient world: most regard sinners as people who habitually behaved in immoral ways or in ways that contradicted widely shared religious observance. We never encounter a clear definition of sinners, a term that almost surely expresses general social disapproval.
Whatever the case, here was Jesus sitting while these tax collectors and sinners who were ‘reclining’ with him and his disciples. The very posture of the tax collectors and sinners, at the table with Jesus, indicates a certain comfort level that they shared with this Jewish Rabbi; a comfort level that makes the ‘self-righteous’ both then, and now, uncomfortable enough.
But should we be uncomfortable with what is happening around us our attitude cannot be one of the Pharisees who lack the grace to speak directly with the one whose actions they have taken umbrage with; in this case, Jesus.
What do we do when we disagree with those we find hard to agree with? The Pharisees resorted to a low blow. They took up their issue, not with Jesus but with his disciples. So often this is exactly what we do. We lack the grace to address our differences with the person concerned and rather resort to backbiting. Both calumny and slander are sins so don’t go about justifying your actions.
Christ disapproves of such behaviour. Scripture tells us that he “heard of this” (verse 12). We often think that our gossiping and heinous verbal attacks on those we do not like go unnoticed. Well, Christ heard what the Pharisees said and he certainly gets to hear what we say.
The response of Jesus was twofold. It announced his plan of salvation and a criticism of the self-righteous. While the Church has got distracted with many issues, the core of our faith rests in the salvific plan of God. He sent his son to save us from our sins. Now, sitting amid sinners and tax collectors he makes that plan clear once again. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick.”
Clearly, sin is a sickness and only those who are sick know how much they wish to be well and rid of illness. Just as sickness destroys the body, sin destroys the soul. Jesus has come to take away our sickness of sin. But many of us refuse to acknowledge sin in our lives. We refuse the sacrament of confession consoling ourselves that we are good people. God did not call us to goodness, he called us to holiness.
The fact is that all of us have sinned (Rom 3:10-11, 23), but only those who acknowledge their sins can be forgiven. How can God ever forgive someone who doesn’t think they need it?
The response of Jesus also consisted of a criticism of the self-righteous. The Pharisees reviled their religious superiority. Yet, those who could parrot the scriptures seemed to have forgotten the ones that spoke of mercy. To them and us Christ says, “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
To some, this may seem like a carte blanche; complete freedom to act as one wishes. Scripture must be read in its entirety and not selectively. To the adulterous woman, Jesus says “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” The disease and the poison that sin is needs the attention of the physician and Jesus is the divine physician. Having been healed by Jesus, we must shun sin vigorously or else we become like the dog in Proverbs 26:11 who returns to its vomit.
Every Saint has a past and every sinner a future.