Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.
Matthew 6: 12-13
For most of my life, I have read, and, I thought, taken to heart the words from Hosea that Jesus speaks today. What I had not heard clearly were his words addressed to the Pharisees that introduce the quotation. “Go and learn the meaning of the words . . . .” Precisely what makes a Pharisee a Pharisee is that we are not conscious of being one. Since we are not in the public positions held by the Pharisees, it is easy to read Jesus’ encounters with them and not really feel the dire warning of his teachings concerning hypocrisy. Yet, recent months in my own life have illuminated for me how much I have to learn the true meaning of what Jesus says today.
The setting of this gospel incident is the home of Matthew the tax collector, just called by Jesus to follow him. Jesus has gone for a meal in his house and there sharing the meal are sinners and tax collectors. The upstanding Pharisees are appalled at this, of course, and accuse Jesus of being involved with the wrong sorts of people. It is in light of this that Jesus tells them to go and learn the real meaning of the Scripture passage.
In a general audience two years ago, Pope Francis spoke of this passage from Matthew. There he defined the “mercy” of which Jesus speaks as follows: “. . . the loyalty of a heart that recognizes its own sins, that mends its ways and returns to be faithful to the covenant with God.” He then went on to say: “Jesus also applies this prophetic phrase to human relationships: the Pharisees were very religious in form, but were not willing to sit at the table with tax collectors and sinners . . . .”
The Fundamental Principles call on us to recognize that the flow of life is one of continual conversion, of being formed through “trial and error.”
Over the course of your lifetime,
your loving Father
will gradually convert you to Himself,
if you let Him.
Pope Francis describes for us what it means to let God convert us to Himself, to our original integrity. It is by recognizing our own sins, mending our ways, and returning to fidelity to the covenant with God. It is recognizing how we have distanced ourselves from God, from others, and so from the world itself. There is an oft-repeated humorous story in our community about a late former member who was a head of one of our schools. One evening he was stopped by a police officer for speeding. Very much too taken with himself, he said to the officer: “Do you know who I am?” As one might expect the officer both didn’t know and didn’t care.
I think the prideful question that the former brother asked might be turned into a humble question we could each ask of God: “Do you know who I am?” Over time, I come increasingly to realize that God always knows who we really are, but often the person we’re presenting and take ourselves to be in the moment is unknown of God. And, as Thomas Merton trenchantly writes, “To be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.” One thing I’ve discovered about myself is how quickly I can lose myself. So affected am I by the values of the present age and of those around me, so much do I long to be someone in the eyes of others, that without even realizing it, I can play a role that I believe is acceptable and appealing to them.
This is true in the larger world and also in our smaller worlds, and a part of that pretense is the circle of persons with whom I associate. In this gospel story, Jesus is calling us out on our pretensions at both of these levels.
As I’ve mentioned frequently, during these past months we have embarked in our community on what we are calling, perhaps somewhat pretentiously in its own right, a process of transformation. Despite the elevated terminology, the process itself is a very simple one. It is an attempt to connect where we have been disconnected, to relate to each other in a way we have feared relating before, and so to summon each other, to paraphrase Pope Francis, to return to fidelity “to the covenant with God” and with each other. While I won’t presume to say I am being transformed, I can say that some powerful changes are occurring within me as a result of this process. At least as of right now, the biggest change I have experienced is being profoundly humbled to realize how arrogant and mistaken I have been in my judgments of others.
Because I have lived the vast majority of my life in this relatively small community, I have presumed to know people and to know who they are, and much worse, what they have to offer the community and myself. I have been a Pharisee and an elitist in ways of which I was very unaware. I chose a certain circle within which to relate and to work, and I related far too little with so many outside of that circle.
As human persons, we can’t escape judging. Despite Jesus’ admonitions to avoid judging others, we tend to make our preferences, often unaware of what they are, the source of our judging and so involvement with others. By being drawn into structured time and conversations with people I have not really significantly spoken with in the past, I have found myself moved and instructed by the depth of the good will, integrity, and desire for deeper life in those I had not been bothering to relate to. On the other hand, I have discovered that some I presumed to be “in the know,” as I took myself to be, lack some of the same openness, willingness and desire that I recognize and experience in those who for me had been “the tax collectors and sinners.”
In the past when I heard or read this story from Matthew, I could readily identify the pharisaical in those around me, in some of the religious and political leaders of our day. But now I realize how unconsciously my life is constrained by my own hypocrisy and arrogance. Many in my own community whom I hardly saw or recognized are becoming brothers and teachers to me. And many with whom I thought I shared a common vision, desire, and aspiration, I am coming to see as strangers to me. As I experience this disorientation, I realize that it is important not to exchange one set of judgments for another or a new elitist pharisaism for an old. I must learn that it is not for me to decide who sits at the table, but willingly, openly, and lovingly to sit with whoever comes.
My whole religious life I have struggled with the possibility or impossibility of community. How is it possible that persons who are so different can truly come, based only on faith and a shared sense of call, to “help, encourage, and edify one another and to work together”? Now, late in life, I am beginning to intuit an answer to my question and the truth of such a possibility. It is the image of the table at Matthew’s house. The elite are absent from the table, because they are judging those at it. But the Lord, is there with those who know they are sick but, in good will, come to celebrate their broken lives with the Lord. Perhaps, the one quality necessary to sit at the table, to create community together is “good will.” It is being who we are without pretense and a willingness to be a disciple and learner by recognizing that we don’t know and need the Lord to teach us.
So, Jesus turns to those who are judging and feeling superior and says, “Go and learn mercy.” I am a bit horrified by my arrogance; but I am joyful in what I have received from those whom before I had given no space and time in my life. I am hurt to feel distance from those I took to be my companions. Yet, the distance is not new; it has merely been manifest for what it is. To call this transformation may well be overstated. It is, however, personally ground shaking to realize late in life that I know so little about love and relating. I have thought that love is the gratification of my malformed preferences. Instead, it is the experience of mercy, of “hesed.” It is putting God first by opening to all those persons and ways through which God would come to me and to us, but whom, in our pride, we have refused to let in and be with. Love, and so community, is far more ubiquitous than I have been able to comprehend. God’s ways are mysterious because they don’t manifest where and in whom I demand they do. The call back to God, to conversion, comes through those who, in good will and humility, bring themselves to the table without conditions.
Concluding that dialogue with the Pharisees, Jesus reminds them of a word of the prophet Hosea (6:6): “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13). Addressing the people of Israel, the prophet reproaches them because the prayers they raised were but empty and incoherent words. Despite God’s covenant and mercy, the people often lived with a “façade-like” religiosity, without living in depth the command of the Lord. This is why the prophet emphasized: “I desire mercy”, namely the loyalty of a heart that recognizes its own sins, that mends its ways and returns to be faithful to the covenant with God. “And not sacrifice”: without a penitent heart, every religious action is ineffective! Jesus also applies this prophetic phrase to human relationships: the Pharisees were very religious in form, but were not willing to sit at the table with tax collectors and sinners; they did not recognize the opportunity for mending their ways and thus for healing; they did not place mercy in the first place: although being faithful guardians of the Law, they showed that they did not know the heart of God! It is as though you were given a parcel with a gift inside and, rather than going to open the gift, you look only at the paper it is wrapped in: only appearances, the form, and not the core of the grace, of the gift that is given!
Dear brothers and sisters, all of us are invited to the table of the Lord. Let us make our own this invitation and sit beside the Lord together with his disciples. Let us learn to look with mercy and to recognize each of them as fellow guests at the table. We are all disciples who need to experience and live the comforting word of Jesus. We all need to be nourished by the mercy of God, for it is from this source that our salvation flows.
Pope Francis, General Audience, 13 April 2016