Monday, September 21, 2009

Reflections on the Feast of St. Matthew

As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.  He said to him, “Follow me.”  And he got up and followed him.  While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.  The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

He heard this and said, “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 9:9-13

I think among Christians there are two tendencies which go against the teaching of Christ and need to be opposed.  One is the tendency to say "This person is a sinner and therefore his conversion is a sham and we should shun him."  The other is to say "I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior — so it doesn't matter what I do otherwise."

"This Person is a sinner"

Of course we need to recognize that all persons are sinners, and so are we.  All of us have sins we are struggling with, and all of us need to look at our brethren with that in mind: The Lord has been merciful to us, and so we must do this as well in our consideration of others.  The sinner who realizes he is a sinner seeks out God to repent.  The self righteous one focuses on the sins of others and does not consider how his own actions appear before God.

Matthew, as a Tax Collector, would have had a reputation among the Jews as a quisling or collaborator.  He was enriching himself working for the conqueror in exploiting the conquered.  Jesus called him, and he left what he had… probably a lucrative position… and followed Jesus.

Yet because of what he was, some held it against him all the same.  He had collaborated and therefore he was an outcast forever and always.  Jesus recognized that the sick need the physician, but some would argue that anyone who has ever been ill were not welcome.  Such a view ignores the fact that the one judging is behaving in a way contrary to the words of God.  If we do not have mercy towards our fellow man, our acts of sacrifice are meaningless.  As St. John has said (1 John 4:20-21):

20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.

"I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior — so it doesn't matter what I do otherwise."

This is often stereotyped as the "Once Saved Always Saved" (OSAS) position, but it is more than that.  One of the most common errors in America is to claim that Public Figure X has done great things, so certain "little things" called sin doesn't matter.

When Jesus calls us, He does indeed call us from where we are.  However, we are not to remain where we are.  If we are great sinners, we are to turn away from the lifestyle that alienated us from God to begin with.  The college student dabbling in drugs and premarital sex, the businessman making use of unethical business practices, the prostitute selling her body on the streets, the politician advocating laws which were contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Church… we cannot seek to justify our sins by pointing to something "Good" we have done as balancing out the evil done.

Jesus told us (in Luke 17):

7 “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

In doing good, we do not "buy Heaven."  In accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are not "owed salvation."  We are obligated to do these things, and in doing them, we are "unworthy servants."

What good we do does not "balance out" the evil done and permit us to do evil so long as we have done good… or accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord.  The Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia) means "change of mind or heart, repentance, regret."

The Proper Mindset

Moreover these two mentalities can often run together.  We forget our own sins, and assume that our conversion or our charitable actions give us a large bank balance with God against these things.  However we refuse to consider that others might be in the same boat as us and judge them unworthy.

In the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, the three elements necessary for forgiveness are:

  1. Sorrow for our sins
  2. Admission of our guilt
  3. A firm resolve to avoid further evil and turning to good

If we are not sorry for our sins ("I slept with my girlfriend last night and don't regret it"), if we will not admit our guilt ("This isn't a sin!  the Church is just wrong on this issue!"), if we will not resolve to change our lives to live for Christ, rejecting evil in our lives ("So I voted for an abortion law… so what? I work for the poor") we are not followers of Christ but self-righteous men who will not accept the call of Jesus "Come follow me."

The Pharisaical mentality tends to ignore #2 and possibly #1 as well.  It focuses on the sins of others.   The view of the "What I did is enough" mentality ignores #3 and sometimes #2.

If we are not sorry for what we have done, if we will not admit we are sinners in need of the mercy of God how can the Love of God reach us, the God who calls us to be sorry for what we have done, to confess our guilt and do our best to avoid sin in the future becomes a God we can choose to ignore when it is inconvenient.

We then stroke our own egos and congratulate ourselves as the Pharisee did in Luke 18:

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We congratulate ourselves for our pious deeds or our accepting Jesus as our personal savior, but we forget the crucial part.  The Pharisee was not wrong for fasting and giving tithes or for believing in God.  However he was wrong in assuming there was nothing wrong with his own life while standing in judgment of the Tax Collector who at least knew he was a sinner and wanted to change.

This does not mean we should accept evil of course.  When our brother errs, we do need to offer correction.  But it does mean we ought not to judge ourselves righteous in comparison to the world.

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