Jesus has just healed (physically and spiritually) the paralytic man. Now, Jesus takes time out of his teaching to say to Levi, a tax collector who is working at the time, “follow me.” Mark then presents the scene of Jesus at Levi’s house at table with him and many other “tax collectors and sinners.” As usual, the sight of Jesus in this situation upsets the Pharisees, which leads to Jesus saying, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
In Matthew’s account, Jesus also says, “Go and learn the meaning of the scripture, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”. In other words, mercy/love is more important than temple holocausts, more important than the Jewish laws of ritual purity. Mercy is more important than being right. We have heard it all before, and sometimes repetition numbs us to how radical and difficult God’s mercy and love, exhibited by Jesus, are to accept.
It may be helpful to begin by imagining what the modern-day equivalent to dining with “tax collectors and sinners” would be. Whom do we think of as appalling, immoral, unethical, depraved, loved by no one, looked down upon by the righteous, whose weaknesses are laid bare for all to see? In our society, several groups could fit into those categories, for example: neo-Nazis, homosexuals, pornographers, abortionists, former Enron executives, telemarketers, illegal immigrants, terrorists, gang leaders, pregnant teens, bullies, gossips, those at Mass who don't go up to receive Communion, anyone who ever wronged me or broke my heart.
It’s here that our sense of fairness slams right into the enormity of God's mercy. We compare our gift of forgiveness to their gift of mercy. Their brightly wrapped present is an iPod, while ours turns out to be socks. A Pharisee might say, “I work hard to follow the law and abide by all the rules, therefore I deserve salvation. What have these tax collectors done but blatantly disregard the law? How can they possibly be worthy to warrant forgiveness from God?”
It's easy to feel good about Jesus's compassion and healing mercy toward the paralyzed man in yesterday's gospel. After all, it wasn't his fault that he became paralyzed. Our hearts naturally go out to such individuals. But not so with someone like Levi. He and those with him in today's gospel chose their lives and their sinful behavior. I feel no natural sympathy for them. In our legalistic culture, we think they should get what they deserve. A punishment to fit the crime.
We aren't comfortable with certain people receiving the same forgiveness as us because that would force us to really face our own sinfulness. But if we don't face our own sinfulness, we won't be able to fully experience the immense forgiving love of God – to experience our dependence on God. If in my heart I cannot accept God's mercy towards the worst sinners in this world, or in my life, then I am fooling myself to think that I can accept God's forgiveness of me. I would be clinging to my deserving-ness rather than embracing a loving relationship with God.
Jesus invites us today to let go of our comparison spirituality. To surrender our Law & Order sense of salvation. It’s a difficult and tension-filled task, but necessary if we are to accept the gifts that God so deeply wants to give us
By Gerard Pfannenstiel