Feast of St. Matthew (Ephesians 4:1-7,11-13; Matthew 9:9-13)
As a young man, Pope Francis often contemplated Caravaggio’s depiction of today’s Gospel scene. He said, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
I think that’s key here. People don’t volunteer to be disciples; the initiative is always with Jesus. When people approach Jesus (without first being invited) and say that they want to follow Him, He warns them or challenges them, making them think twice about what they’re saying. He rejects people who suppose they can become disciples on their own initiative. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions, give to the poor, and then come follow me.”
Looking back on my own discernment journey, I originally wanted to be a priest for selfish reasons, because of what I felt I had to offer the church, and with my own conditions. I remember thinking, “This would be perfect for me!” Thank God for Fred Pellegrini. “OK. Thanks for contacting us. What’s your relationship with Jesus?” Wait, Jesus has to be in on this, too? What’s Jesus got to do with… Oh. My priorities needed reversal. A vocation is not a job. My conception of discipleship needed refining, reforming. I needed metanoia — a change of heart.
Jesus’ call to discipleship isn’t simply another cause to add to our listbut rather a shocking transformation of our previous understandings. I’ve come to realize over time is that conversion is a grace. It’s not something we can produce or will ourselves.
For the righteous (or self-righteous), those who think they’ve got it all figured out themselves, there is no room for God’s love and mercy to enter in. They don’t realize God’s role in their lives. They don’t know their need for God. “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician.” But of course the truth is, none of us is well. We’re sin-o-holics, but it’s easy to lose sight of our spiritual sickness like the Pharisees did. Patterns of failure and our inability to improve easily leads to the temptation to think, eh, it’s not so bad, it’s part of me, that’s just the way I am, it’s the way God made me… And we can settle deliberately for mediocrity. But Jesus is really saying, “I wouldn’t be here if everything were peachy keen. I came not to call the just, but those who are missing the mark.”
For a long time, I just could not fathom why we have to “call to mind our sins” at the beginning of Mass in order to “prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” Yeah, let me remember how awful I am so that I can feel even worse about myself than I already do. That really gets me in the mood to celebrate. Clearly I, along with the Pharisees, needed to go and learn the meaning of the words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The word “mercy” appears everywhere in our liturgies and prayers. We even had a whole year dedicated to it. Yet I still feel that both the word itself and our need for it are woefully misunderstood. The prophet Micah says, “Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt…and delights in clemency?” (7:18) Our God who is Love delights in forgiving us! What’s more, God is patient, God is kind, God does not brood over injury, God bears all things. God never fails. This is what the Hebrew word hesed entails — a covenant of complete devotion. God wants to maintain relationship with us, so his mercy and forgiveness are a given.
In Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, we hear about the joy of the Shepherd upon finding his lost one. God rejoices when we are found straying. Or when the housekeeper finds a lost coin she got down on her hands and knees for, she rejoices with her friends. And of course, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we hear of the Father’s joy when his son returns home.
Jesus lives in this joy and wants us to share in it abundantly. “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:11) And one way he does this is by forgiving us, by having mercy on us. By saving us from our sins. That’s the meaning of his very name, according to Matthew. He comes to remove whatever keeps us from God. Love reaches its utmost strength in the expression of forgiveness. So if God’s essence is Love itself, then God’s being find its completion, its perfection in forgiveness. Maybe this is why God rejoices in bestowing mercy: God is most God when he forgives.
To experience something of this joy is a great grace. Think of the Canticle of Zechariah. When we feel God’s joy, peace takes hold within us. We are reconciled to God. We are healed. We have new life. And this experience is so powerful that ultimately it expands and overflows. Look at Matthew. Look at the woman from yesterday’s Gospel. Look at any of the saints. Those who know God’s love can’t help but serve others who are in need. We want to become part of Jesus’ saving mission ourselves, to share what we have found, not because we’re supposed to or because we’re commanded to, but because we desire to. Mercy is a disposition, not a duty; a gift, not a reward.
In order to share our joy with others, though, we must be able to forgive others. And in order to be able to forgive others, we must break down walls. This is one answer to the Pharisees’ question about why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. This is the reason for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, perhaps the reason for our apostolate work. Now we are entrusted with Christ’s message of reconciliation, and it is a grace to be shared because we all need God’s mercy.
If we’re all a sin-o-holics, then the truth is that we will never be 100% cured of our addiction to pride, to ourselves. Admitting this fact allows us to face it honestly, and our examens help us keep it in mind. As St. Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” We need help. That’s really what we are saying at the beginning of Mass. When we can say this with authenticity, then we can we truly celebrate that our God came to call sinners — us all — and rejoice with Him that we haven’t yet given up hope.