Pharisee or Sinner?

Friday, Jul. 20, 2018
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

I am not very good at Ignatian contemplation – the practice of reading a Scripture passage and imagining myself in the scene. However, when recently I heard the Gospel story of the Calling of Matthew, I got to wondering which character of the story I most resemble.

First the setting. Jesus was walking with his disciples, probably close to mealtime. He sees Matthew sitting at his table, collecting taxes. Because of his job, Matthew would have been hated by his fellow Jews, not only because he took their money (and probably cheated them), but also because he worked for the despised Romans, who occupied Israel and were seen as the enemy. According to Jewish law, associating with tax collectors or other sinners would make a person ritually impure and therefore unable to enter the temple. Yet Jesus had the audacity to call Matthew to follow him, and to eat with him – scandalous behavior by a rabbi.

The Pharisees, who defended the Jewish religion and traditions, asked Jesus’ disciples how their teacher could possibly do such a thing. The New Testament doesn’t record the disciples’ response, which is a pity, because I wonder what their reaction was, especially as they were just getting to know the Christ. Surely they had to come to grips early on with the behavior of their leader. Did they go along with his eccentricities because they got a good meal from it? What did they say to the religious leaders who raised the legitimate question about why they would choose to associate with those who were hated by their own people? We know Jesus’ reply: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” However, before their teacher spoke up, what did the disciples say? “I’m just here for the food”?

Sadly, that answer pretty well sums up my spiritual life these days. I am nourished by the Church and her sacraments, but I shuffle my feet and murmur excuses when asked to enact the faith by going out to the margins to eat with sinners, to bring glad tidings to the poor, to comfort the sick, to shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, welcome the stranger.

I would like to think that the role of the Pharisee doesn’t fit me very well because I don’t raise my eyebrows and mutter incredulously about people who do venture out to serve in the margins of society, but if I am honest I must admit that I am not very accepting of those whose ideas of Christian charity differ from my own. In this way I am certainly not like Jesus, who, when challenged about his behavior, gave a quiet explanation rather than a combative defense.

I also don’t reflect Jesus in the way I choose my companions. I would much prefer be seen with the “in crowd” like the Pharisees rather than outcasts like the sinners. And there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus could have been a Pharisee – besides the fact that as God he could have been anything he wanted, what matters from my perspective is that he knew Jewish law and tradition inside out, as he proved on the infrequent occasions when he chose to shame his religious opponents. So if Jesus had wanted he could have been one of the religious elite, welcomed in all the best places, but instead he chose to eat with sinners.

Almost forgotten in the telling of this story is Matthew. After the gospel relates that he was called by Jesus, the focus shifts from him to the question from the Pharisees, but Tradition says this sinner went on to became one of the four Evangelists and most likely died a martyr to the faith. It was this man whom Jesus saw sitting at the tax collector’s table, it was this man whom he called, it was this man who followed him.

Which leads me to wonder: If Jesus were to pass by my desk, would he see a righteous Pharisee or a sinner who could be called to repentance; and if he did call me, would I rise and follow him?

Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.

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