Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
June 5, 2005
Hos 6:3-6; Rom 4:18-25; Mt 9:9-13
1) There’s an amazing encounter in today’s Gospel between God and a notorious sinner. In it, Jesus reveals both his DEEPEST DESIRE as well as the PURPOSE for which he took on our human nature and came into our world. In it, too, we see what the proper HUMAN RESPONSE is to this divine action.
2) We begin with Jesus’ desire, his motivation, his deepest yearning. He gives it to us straight: “I desire MERCY, not sacrifice.” The Lord Jesus is mercy incarnate. His love, which is everlasting, is always a merciful love. He doesn’t love us because we have earned his love, but he loves us even when we have spurned his love. And the Son of God’s MISSION flows from his merciful ESSENCE. The purpose for which he came into our world was to share that mercy: “I have come to call not the righteous, but SINNERS.” All of Jesus’ mission is summed up in this sentence. He whose first homily started, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!,” and whose last homily began, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” has come to call us to conversion. We reminded him of this at the beginning of Mass when we prayed to him, “You came to call sinners: Christ, have mercy!” Our first vocation, our primary call, comes not because we’re a saint, but because we’re a sinner. But God who loves us does not abandon us, but comes to call us from that life of sin to a life of sanctity.
3) We see him put these truths into action in today’s Gospel. Matthew was a tax collector, and publicans were about the most despicable public sinners in ancient Palestine. The way the Roman tax system worked was that the Romans needed to get a set fee from a given territory; everything the tax collectors got beyond that was theirs to keep. Because of this system, many tax collectors, filled with greed, would begin rapaciously to rip off their own people with the help of the Roman army. They were like modern mafia dons who extort neighborhood small businesses and even families to pay “protection fees” lest an “accident” happen to their businesses or loved ones. For Jesus to go after Matthew at his customs post then would be as dramatic as his going into the Playboy Mansion today and calling Hugh Hefner from his babes, or entering into Whitey Bulger’s clandestine hideaway and calling him away from his secret stash. But Jesus desires mercy and he came to call sinners to repentance and he was going to show that by going after one of the most notorious sinners of his day.
4) There must have been something extraordinarily powerful about that encounter with Jesus and the force of his call. In the most famous painting of the scene in history, the great Italian Caravaggio focuses on Jesus’ outstretched finger zeroing in on Matthew from across the room, calling him from his customs post, calling him from his life of sin, to follow him. Matthew points to himself, almost bewildered, as if to ask, “You couldn’t be calling me, could you? Don’t you know who I am? You couldn’t possibly want ME to be your follower, could you?” All we know for sure comes from the autobiographical account he himself gave us in today’s Gospel: he simply “got up and followed him.” Matthew left the money, for which he had longed so greedily, behind him on the table. He left his job behind. He left what he thought was his life behind. But he was about to discover was that his life was just about to begin! There was something about the power of Jesus’ presence and the attractive might of his call that cut through all the entanglements, all the false loves, all the lies that were keeping Matthew imprisoned by sin. Matthew got up from his dark, damp self-made jail and followed his Liberator out into the true sunshine!
5) The same Jesus who entered Matthew’s chambers and called him from his customs post is here in this Church today. And across the pews he has each of us in his divine cross-hairs, and just as poignantly and personally as with St. Matthew, is stretching out his finger to call each of us from our customary posts, from our sins, from our own comfort zones, to get up and follow him out into that same sunshine. Jesus meets us where we’re at – just as he met Matthew where he was at – but he doesn’t want us to STAY where we’re at. He wants us, today, to leave whatever keeps us from him behind, completely behind. He wants to fill us with his mercy. He wants to call us sinners – you and me – to conversion. The question for us today is whether we’ll respond like Matthew.
6) In order to respond in that way, we first need to realize that we are sinners in need of his mercy. Unless we recognize that we’re sinners, we would have no real need for a Savior. As Jesus himself says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Either we realize we need the divine physician or we don’t. And if we think we’re well, that’s the greatest sickness of all. The only reason why we’re here – if we’re here for the right reason – is because we’re sinners whom Jesus has called, out of love, to conversion. The only exception to that would be if you were Jesus or the Blessed Mother in disguise! And if you are, then please come up here right now and take over for me!
7) But we have to do more than merely realize that we’re sinners and that Jesus has come to save us from our sins. We have to do what it takes to be forgiven of our sins. Like Matthew, we need to get up and follow Jesus. We can’t both follow Jesus and remain seated in the midst of a life of sin. We can’t serve both God and mammon (Mt 6:24). We can’t serve both God and our own egos. We can’t serve both God and immoral desires and deeds.
8 ) There are essentially two reactions we can have to Jesus’ call.
a. We can respond like the Israelites whom God criticized in the first reading for loving him “like the morning cloud, like the dew that dissipates early.” This would happen if we hear his call to conversion, to leave our old ways behind, and say, “I really should,” but then leave here without the concrete resolution to bring about fundamental changes in our lives.
b. Or we can respond like Abraham in today’s second reading, who at 75 years old – well past retirement age – heard God’s call to get up and leave his native place, Ur of the Chaledeans (modern day Baghdad), and WALK with his family and flock all the way to a place where God would show him. He didn’t know where God was leading, he didn’t know that it would be a journey of hundreds of miles, he didn’t know he’d need to fight for it, but he loved and trusted God enough to make the commitment to leave and go. Later, he even was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, if that’s what God were truly asking him to do.
c. The question for us is whether we, like Matthew and like Abraham, are willing to leave everything behind to follow Christ, if that’s what he asks. We can make it practical, as it was for them. If God were asking us to leave our well-paying job behind to serve him, would we do it like Matthew did? If he were clearly asking us to choose Him over a family member or loved one, would we choose him? If we wouldn’t, then he’s not really God in our live. Our job, or that other person, or something or someone else would be god. It’s not that we would believe that God doesn’t exist, but our love for him would be like the morning clouds or dew, and dissipate whenever something else came up.
9) We need to make this even more concrete. If we wish to follow the example of St. Matthew in the Gospel, we need to put into action the call to conversion. To play with the analogy that Jesus gives us in the Gospel, we not only have to recognize that we need a doctor, but we must go to the doctor and do what he tells us is necessary for our cure. Sin is a progressive form of metastatic cancer that will kill us – and we never know quite how soon. Jesus is the oncologist who can and wants to cure us, but he won’t treat us against our consent. To be saved we first have to go to him, and then we need to follow his treatment regimen.
a. This will involve first the surgery of the confessional, which he set up as the soul’s operating room on Easter Sunday evening. But will we trust in the doctor enough to go so that he can cut us open, take out what is killing us, and sew us back up better than before?
b. It will also involve the radiation of prayer, where we put ourselves in the radioactive presence of Jesus, whose gamma rays flow out from the monstrance and the tabernacle, slowly invading each of our cells. Do we trust the Divine Physician enough to pray as he calls us to do?
c. Finally, it will involve the chemo that will kill those fast-growing areas within us that are prone to spiritual cancer, what we call the near occasions of sin. We may lose our appetite for the things that have fed us, but this is part of the cure. Our hair may fall out, but maybe we can benefit from this cure of our vanity. We may lose weight, but, after all, we have to trim down to fit through the eye of the needle, which is the door to heaven.
d. The key question is whether we’re willing to follow the regimen of the Divine Physician, who will cure us if we let him. Or will we be like those patients who, for whatever reason, don’t go to the doctor and don’t follow his advice?
10) There’s one other fundamental element to this encounter between Jesus and Matthew that is also crucially relevant to the encounter the Lord wants to have with you and me today. Jesus, mercy incarnate, didn’t come only to call us sinners to repentance and have us follow him in sanctity. He desire was for us to share his desire; his mission was for us to partake in his mission. He wanted us to learn how to love others with the same merciful love with which he loves us and loves them. He wanted to give us a share in his mission for the salvation of the world, beginning with our family members, with our friends, with our neighbors, with our colleagues.
11) We see this first in the life of Matthew. His first deed after encountering his Savior was to call his friends together so that they might themselves encounter Jesus. He knew they were sinners and knew how much they needed Jesus to cure them of the same malady from which Jesus had cured him. We likewise see this reality in the life of St. Peter, whose first words to the Lord were “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8 ), but whom Jesus built as the rock on whom his mission of mercy would continue. We see this reality in the life of St. Paul, who used to kill Christians for a living, but after whose conversion became the greatest evangelist of God’s Gospel of mercy the Church has ever seen. All three went out as proof positive, as living advertisements, that the forgiveness of sins is possible. When I was a teenager, I used to tease my balding father about the commercials for the Hair Club for Men. (Little did I know that twenty years later other teenagers would tease me for a similar protruding forehead!). I thought it was one of the best commercials ever made. At the beginning of it, Sy Sperling, the owner with a full head of hair, detailed the new techniques to cover up baldness and the great reactions he had received from needy men. Up to this point, there was nothing different than any other such commercial. But at the end of it, he said, “I’m telling you this will work not just because I’m the president of the company, but because I’m a former client” and held up a photograph of him fully bald, as clear proof that his technique works. The Lord wants to do the same thing with each of us. He wants to reconcile us and send us out as the Sy Sperlings of our day. If we’re tempted to respond, “He couldn’t possibly be calling me. I don’t have what it takes to spread the Gospel,” we should just recall that we could not have any better excuses than Matthew, Peter, Paul, or any of the reconciled sinners Jesus called to spread that message of mercy in the first century. He can do with us – he will do with us – what he did with them, if we let him.
12) Today Jesus points to us and calls us to conversion, but he also wants to point us to others as his instruments to bring them to conversion. Like Matthew, we all know people who need his mercy. We find them readily among our friends, our family, our co-workers and fellow-students. The question for us is whether we love Jesus enough to share his desire for mercy and for their salvation, and whether we love our friends and family enough to do what it takes to bring them to Jesus’ mercy – by our prayers and sacrifices, by the example of our own continual conversion and practice of confession, and by our patient but insistent echoing of Jesus’ call to conversion.
13) The Lord Jesus wants to strengthen us to carry out that mission. Just like after he called St. Matthew from his customs post, from his money, from his sins, the Lord led him on an adventure that ultimately brought them to the Upper Room, so the Lord Jesus calls us to conversion and leads us to the Cenacle, where we receive the very same flesh and blood Jesus gave to Matthew during that first Eucharist. The Eucharist is Jesus’ body given and blood shed for the remission of sins. It is where the Divine Physician, after he has healed our sins in confession, gives us the medication that will make us strong and bring us back to full health. To receive him well, we first need to leave behind all sin which keeps us from communion with him, and then enter into loving union with him, sharing his very own deepest desire (mercy) and greatest mission (the salvation of sinners). To say “Amen!” to him in Holy Communion means to embrace all of these realities.
14) We are now in the comfortable padded pews, our customary spots in Church. Jesus is extending his divine digit toward us and calling us to get off our duffs and follow him on a journey that will lead to our becoming saints, to our giving our bodies and blood for the remission of sin along with him, to our experiencing the full joys of loving union with him in this life and in the next. But for this to happen we need to be willing to respond like Matthew, to leave everything else behind if necessary, to get up, follow him all the way, and bring him to those we say we love. The Lord stands waiting with his outstretched finger looking straight at us – and he and all of heaven are awaiting our response.