Today we remember and give thanks for Saint Matthew, an apostle and evangelist, called into companionship with Jesus and sent out to share the good news. Matthew’s story reminds us Jesus calls and sends all kinds of people. Matthew worked as a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish people because they worked for the occupying Roman Empire. In league with the enemy, tax collectors were outcasts, barred from Jewish community. Even more striking than uneducated fishermen, Jesus invited Matthew.
Jesus particularly liked and looked out for the least and last on the religious leaders’ list. Especially in Jesus’ day, eating together was a sign of acceptance and belonging. Companion literally means sharing bread. The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them directly: “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”
First, Jesus used common sense. Doctors serve the sick. I’ve come to those who admit their need. Second, Jesus used scripture, quoting the prophet Hosea’s message from God: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Hosea spoke at a time when ancient Israel tried to live life on its own terms, doing what it preferred while also trying to appease God by following the religious rituals, offering the sacrifices. God responded: “I desire mercy more than sacrifice.” How you treat one another is more important than religious ritual. Honoring humanity honors God. Love and forgive abundantly. Be merciful, especially to strangers, sinners, outsiders. Welcome the least, the last, the lost. Don’t condemn. Offer kindness.
Matthew experienced mercy and kindness first hand. Listen again to how he tells the story. “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a tax booth.” Jesus saw a man. Jesus saw a human being named Matthew, someone with dignity and worth. Jesus saw Matthew sitting at a tax booth.
There are so few words. Imagine. Remember other stories. There are likely lots of people. Jesus often had a crowd around him. Jesus walks along with people are following, watching, asking him questions. Jesus engages the people near him and Jesus looks beyond, attentive to the periphery.
Remember Jesus heard blind Bartimaeus crying out from the sidelines and turned to listen and healed him. Jesus, with people pressing in on him from every nice, noticed a woman who touched him with faith, so he stopped and asked for her and healed her. Jesus looked at Zaccheus up in a tree and said to that chief tax collector: I’m going to eat at your house today. Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at a tax booth and said: Follow me.
Walking along, Jesus saw the people right in front of him and everyone around. With mercy and kindness, Jesus acknowledged the outcast, saw the invisible, healed the stranger, befriended the enemy. Matthew, like so many others, experienced mercy and kindness from Jesus.
Yet the religious folk were upset, clinging to judgement, not seeing the humanity in front of them and instead building barriers. Like them, we ask “Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Condemn the traitor. Keep clean. Stay back.
We too get caught being self-confident, serious, and secure, busy doing good works, maintaining well-meaning religious ritual. We lose sight by refusing mercy and kindness both to each other and more importantly to those on the margins, periphery and sidelines, the very people on whom Jesus intently focused his attention.
“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” Jesus said. Following Jesus is not about growing self-sufficiency or ability. Not about keeping people out but welcoming all to the party of God. Like Matthew and the cloud of witnesses we remember today, saints accept limitations, keep admitting they need a savior.
What would it look like today for us to love mercy? What does Jesus model with Mattthew?
Let me suggest three things: look, honor, and receive.
Look widely. Pay attention, both to those near and close to you, to family, colleagues and neighbors. Also look to the periphery, acknowledge the outcast, see the invisible, the stranger, and enemy. As you walk along, see everyone and ask: What do they need? What do they seek?
Honor mystery. Treat each person with respect. Acknowledge and work to let go of your assumptions. We Brothers cultivate honor with the gift of silence as well as our words and actions. As we say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i] Pray for the people you see. Honor their mystery in silence and in word. Acknowledge people in the eye. Honor them with gratitude, saying thank you. Give help concretely.
Receive instruction. What does the other have to teach you? Diverse community, including fishermen alongside tax collectors, challenges and strengthens. Tension and friction are inevitable especially with companions we didn’t choose, but this is a gift.[ii] We help each other grow. Stranger, enemies just as family members and colleagues keep offering us instruction on giving and receiving mercy.
Pope Francis has declared this upcoming church year as a jubilee Year of Mercy. “The mercy of God,” says Francis, “is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality through which [God] reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child.”[iii]
Matthew was changed by this deep love. Like him, we follow Jesus by loving others with concrete mercy. Watch Francis model it. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive instruction.
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