8 Jun 2008
“The Pharisees saw this and said to His disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matt. 9:11) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
I always get a kick out of this biblical passage. If we don’t rush past the details of the story, I think we can hear Matthew poking fun at the hypocrisy of those who complain that Jesus is not holy enough. Matthew tells us that Jesus called him to discipleship while he was performing his job out in public. Tax collectors then, even more so than now, were not well-liked people. The money they took from their fellow citizens was turned over to the Roman occupiers to help pay for the Roman army, which wasn’t at all a peace-keeping force. They were there to make sure the Jewish people knew who was the boss. The crowds around Matthew that day didn’t know Matthew per se; they just knew that he was a tax-collector. They didn’t know the person; they were prejudiced against his occupation.
It is to this very unpopular man, from a very unpopular profession, that right out there in the middle of the town square, Jesus says, “Follow me.” More than a few people in the crowd must have been scandalized by this invitation. A lot of people would have imagined that any Jewish religious teacher worth his salt would have nothing to do with a tax collector like Matthew. But Jesus wasn’t an unfair man. He didn’t make judgments based on generalizations. He looked at the person not the category. Jesus’ fairness unleashed the potential in others, in others who maybe were beginning to believe the prejudice of others. Maybe Matthew did think himself the sinner because so many others thought of him as one. But Jesus wasn’t one to be confined by the unfair limitation imposed by others and even those accepted by others. Jesus came to us to break down these kinds of barriers and limits.
Matthew is overjoyed by Jesus’ offer. He holds a party to celebrate, and the only people he knows, the only people who will associate with the likes of a tax collector, are other tax collectors and people from the fringes of society, people whom good and decent folk refer to en masse as sinners. Again, without knowing who these people are, they are all categorized together and degraded together. It is among this commonly accepted unsavory assortment of dinner guests that Jesus and His disciples sit down and share table. Not unexpectedly, the religious leaders scoff at such an association. But here’s the funny part: The Pharisees mention their disapproval to Jesus’ disciples, it is said in the Bible. Where are the disciples? They’re at the dinner party with Jesus. This has to imply that the Pharisees are there too. Isn’t this why Matthew can mention that Jesus overhears their comments? They’re just down the table from Jesus, a few seats away. They may be shocked by who Jesus is sitting with at His end of the table, but they’re not so upset that they won’t accept Matthew’s free food and drink at their end of the table. I can almost see Matthew smiling as he writes of this day.
This act of hypocrisy is subtly noted by Matthew. It’s there, but it’s not something screamed out at the top of his lungs. Matthew lets the actions speak for themselves. Jesus doesn’t need to say anything; what these Pharisees do say enough. They complain that Jesus eats with sinners, but they’re at the same table. Hypocrisy is its own worst enemy. It can’t be justified. The other great story of such an hypocrisy is the woman caught in adultery. The religious leaders bring this woman to Jesus, and they ask for His judgment. Jesus bends down and in the sand starts writing with His finger. Again, He needs to say nothing. Some think that He’s writing out the law pertaining to adultery, and that law makes it clear that both the woman and the man be condemned. The woman is caught in the act; where is the man? Was he too powerful, did he know people of influence, did he have connections? If you’re not going to apply the law for the sake of the law, then don’t take it out on this woman alone. Because Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy, one by one they walk away. Hypocrisy is its own worst enemy.
We all have to beware of this. Hypocrisy is a lot more common than we would like to admit. A child in school is picked-on by some kids. He or she knows how terrible that can feel, but yet that same child may pick-on someone else without any twinge of conscience. Get older, get a job, someone higher up treats you unfairly, and does it sound all that strange to say such a person may then take it out on someone below them? Think about how many times someone may have made us have a bad day in whatever situation we may be, and once we get in that mood we take it out on others. We make their day less than pleasant. What we do not appreciate happening to us, we don’t always equate with what we do to others. That’s the Pharisees sitting at the table complaining about Jesus eating with sinners.
Another example that comes quickly to mind for me is based on this past week’s history-making election. For the first time in American history, a black man has won a major political party’s nomination for the Presidency. We can choose to vote for whomever we like for President. We can be extremely partisan in our opinions: one candidate is all good and one is all wrong for the country. But there’s a difference between partisan and prejudice. I’m going to use our example because we’re here, but we can change Polish for any number of other examples. Polish people know first hand about prejudice. When we heard “Pollack,” we cringed. “Dumb Pollack” could start a fight. We should, therefore, not judge a man, who is running for the highest office of the land, based on a prejudice about the colour of his skin. If any of us do, we practice the same hateful prejudice that was thrown at our immigrant parents and grandparents before us. For if we do, it is no different than the example of the Pharisees sitting at the same table with Jesus and saying to Him, “How can you eat with those people.” Hypocrisy is its own worst enemy. Let us be fair with others like Jesus was with Matthew. Let us see past categories and see individuals. Let us treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. And for these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)