Homily of Rev. Dr. James O'Donnell
You are what you eat. We’ve all heard that expression before and it’s very old. The Roman philosopher, Lucretius, probably gets credit for it. What he actually reportedly said was, “A man becomes what he eats.” I think it can be modified a little: We become like those we eat with. Two nights ago, we were invited to a rehearsal dinner before a wedding. It was held at a Chinese restaurant and it was fabulous. There were ten courses in this dinner, not counting two more dessert courses. But what made it so special was the company of those with whom we shared that meal. We assembled as strangers, literally from all over the world. A relative of the groom had only just arrived from Beijing. By the end of the evening, after introductions, and speeches, and toasts in Chinese, Polish, and perhaps several other tongues, we were a community. Strangers no longer, we celebrated together new friends and the joy of the young couple who were getting married. Across all cultures of our human family, we are often at our best when we share a meal together.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus sharing a meal and, in doing so, he is not just describing but acting out a parable about the universal message of conversion he brings. Jesus had many a dinner in the company of tax collectors and those considered sinners – not necessarily evildoers but people religiously unclean, outside the many laws that dictated everyday existence for a good Jew. Some Bible commentaries say this would include, but not exclusively: herdsmen, butchers, tanners, sailors, and even some shopkeepers. The Pharisees asked why he does that. Why he eats with, and travels with, and lives with those outcasts. And Jesus, using full measure of his very uncommon virtue of common sense, lets them know: because that’s where I am needed. Jesus never did anything just for show. Remember that the dinner scene here occurs early in the ministry of Jesus. He has just come on the public stage in the Gospel of Matthew. Already, he is the new preacher who gave the memorable Sermon on the Mount that included the Beatitudes. People were still talking about it. He has swept through the countryside curing a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralyzed man at Capernaum, and he freed several possessed people of their demons. The Pharisees are trying to take the measure of this young vagabond rabbi. How can he do all this, and yet hang out with a rough crowd who are all outside the law…especially this Matthew, this extortionist, this tax collector?
Consider the challenge of Jesus to Matthew. To the universally hated, Roman-collaborating, crooked, tax collecting Matthew, Jesus simply says, “You, follow me.” And Matthew followed. Matthew must have known that his response would come at a cost. Matthew knew he was walking away from a comfortable job for uncertainty. He gave up a good income but gained honor. He gave up security for an adventure that would change the world. Matthew could not not go. Matthew is us. The call that Matthew heeded and the one to which we are certainly also called, is not superficial. I came to call sinners. Alright then. Who is not a sinner? Who is not an outcast from something? The invitation and the challenge from Jesus is universal and we all get the offer. But it is not a call to just show up. There are no auditions here. No alternatives. Jesus calls us to change profoundly. To prioritize differently. To give up a lot for a lot more.
The clue for us to accepting his challenge is in what he said, “Go and learn the meaning of I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The Pharisees knew exactly what he was getting at. Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea who quoted the words of God saying, “When their shallow piety evaporated like morning dew I slew them by my very word because it is love I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.”
Mercy and love take root within, they come from the heart. Once vitalized they can be given out, expressed in actions of mercy and love toward someone else – these deeds ever so much more desired by God than simply showing up at any altar, hardhearted and selfish, in an empty ritual only of words, even with burning a dove or a goat.
Clearly, Jesus picks his dining partners for their character, their internal possessions of mercy and love that they cultivate and share. He likes that kind of people. He wants more of them at the table. We are invited to dinner with him. And remember, we become like the One with whom we eat this meal.
Wiki-image of the Calling of St. Matthew is in the public domain.