Eating with Sinners
(Readings: Hosea 6:3-6; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13)
Introduction to Mass
According to the readings for the Mass this Sunday, the God we believe in is a God of mercy - but God has a habit of showing his mercy in disconcerting ways. Often he makes a special appeal not to the good, respectable, religious people, but to people who seem the least adequate in terms of our human judgement. So we begin Mass now by acknowledging our own faults and sins, and by asking God for his mercy and guidance.
That short passage from the ninth chapter of Matthew's gospel deals, I think, with one of the most distinctive - and certainly for the people at the time - one of the most provocative - aspects of Jesus' teaching.
There were two groups of people that Jesus was trying to educate by this gesture. The first group was the group of people that in the gospels usually go under the heading of “sinners and outcasts”. These were the people who had broken a part of the Jewish Law in some very public way, and that meant that they were excluded or ostracised from the rest of the community.
The tax-collectors were a good example of people who belonged to that group. Tax-collectors were collaborators with the Romans, who were occupying the country as a colony, and also, nine times out of ten, tax-collectors were swindlers - they didn't jut collect the money they were supposed to, they feathered their own nests as well. So there were good reasons - justifiable reasons - why they were such despised figures, and no good Jew would offer hospitality to a tax-collector or ask a tax-collector to dinner. Their cheating and immoral behaviour was very public, and so they were treated as outcasts.
But in spite of all that, these were the people that Jesus went out of his way to associate with. Sharing a meal with them was a sign of companionship and acceptance, and for the religious leaders this was
unacceptable. "Why does your master eat with tax-collectors and sinners".
Jesus' answer to his critics is to quote the passage from the prophet Hosea that we heard in the first reading - "God wants mercy, not sacrifices" – an imitation of God’s own attitude to people, not elaborate religious ceremonies. It's important to notice that Jesus never says anything to suggest that he thinks it's alright to be a sinner, that it's alright to be a swindler or to commit adultery, or whatever. What Jesus actually says isn't very flattering to the people he's sharing a meal with, because he compares them to people who are sick and who need a doctor.
So he wasn't trying to be liberal and broad-minded in the modern sense and make out that there was no sin involved in their behaviour. In actual fact Jesus took that for granted.
The point of his gesture was to show that no one is excluded, automatically, from God's offer of salvation. He doesn't say to the tax-collectors, "carry on"; he says, "follow me".
He doesn't give their activities any kind of stamp of approval; he calls on them to change their ways. He sits with them and eats with them as a way of summoning them to embrace the way of God's Kingdom.
In the case of Matthew, and in the case of that other tax-collector, Zacchaeus, the summons was successful: Zacchaeus, if you remember, paid back all the money he'd cheated out of people and gave away half of what he owned to make up for the grasping way he'd behaved in the past. So the point of this practice of Jesus' of eating with sinners and outcasts was to hold out the possibility of returning to God and being reconciled with God, which was a possibility denied to those people by the Pharisees and the religious leaders in Jesus society at the time.
And that brings us to the other group of people Jesus wanted to educate here: the respectable and rather self-righteous and snobbish religious people, people who were keeping the Jewish Law, and keeping it very conscientiously.
The constant danger for religious people is to fall into thinking that by keeping the rules - whether it's moral rules or rules of worship and prayer and so on - they're gaining God’s approval or building up merit. On top of that, they can get proud and condescending to other people who aren't keeping the rules so perfectly. And of course, for Christ, that's totally missing the point of our relationship with God.
When we genuinely get to know God better, it gives us a clearer sense of our own sinfulness - not in the sense of a guilt complex or a sense of inferiority, but in the sense of a realistic knowledge of ourselves - an honest picture of our weaknesses, our complicated and selfish motives, and so on. In other words, through knowing God, we gain an accurate knowledge of ourselves, and it makes us less judgemental, less condemning towards other people.
When we stand in front of God, so to speak, it's out of place to start taking pride in our moral and spiritual achievements. Having a bit of humility and recognising our need for mercy, is a more appropriate attitude. That’s what was missing on the part of the people who were questioning Jesus about his eating with sinners and tax-collectors.
So there are two lessons we can take from the readings for this Sunday's mass: one is, that no-one is automatically excluded from God's offer of salvation. And in fact it's God's nature to make a special appeal to the people who seem to be failing or weak-willed from the point of view of the moral codes human beings create.
And the other point is that we should always have a healthy realism about our own sinfulness rather than assuming a sense of superiority over other people. It should be the starting point in our spiritual efforts to get to know God better, and that in turn should stop us from falling into the pride and snobbery of the Pharisees.