By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time - On the Gospel
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Saints and Sinners

Hosea 6:3-6 Romans 4:18-25 Matthew 9:9-13

Reuben was a conceited and self-righteous Sunday school teacher. One day he was teaching the children the importance of living a flawless Christian life, using himself as an example. Toward the end of the class, he asked the kids: “Why do people call me Christian?” After a moment’s pause, one of the kids answered, “Maybe it’s because they don’t know you.” Some of us are like Reuben. People call us Christian simply because they do not know us well enough. To make matters worse, sometimes we do not even know ourselves well enough, and all it takes is a serious temptation or crisis to reveal us to ourselves.

In today’s gospel we read about men like Reuben who think they have it all when it comes to being right with God. They are the Pharisees. The Pharisees are people who have committed themselves to one hundred percent observance of the whole Law. To make sure they do not break the Law, they make other laws to protect the demands of the Law. For example, the Law demands that one pay tithes on one’s capital income. In order to make sure they do not default on that, the Pharisees go beyond the requirements of the Law and pay tithes on everything they own, even on the vegetable that grows in their gardens. Thus they become very scrupulous in the observance of the fine details of the Law. Meanwhile, people regard them and praise them as men of heroic faith.

In their observance of the Law, the Pharisees were uncompromising both to themselves and to other people. They figured that if they could do it, so should everyone else. As a result, they became excessive and unreasonable in the demands they made of other people. The Pharisees categorized everybody into two camps: saints and sinners. People who, on account of their job could not observe all the 613 demands of the Law were labelled sinners. These included such tradesmen as shepherds, butchers, tanners, and tax collectors. These people were believed to be in a regular state of impurity, the tax collectors because they handled pagan Roman money. They were believed to be far from God. And they could not worship with others in the Temple without first going through an elaborate ritual of purification. The Pharisees justified the religious marginalization of these people by appeal to God’s justice. God is holy and sinful people have no part in God. In harping on God’s justice, however, they overlooked an equally important quality of God, namely, mercy. People took them for heroic men of God because people see only the outside. It took the son of God, Jesus Christ himself, to see through the façade and expose their lack of godliness.

When Jesus wanted to assemble an inner group of disciples who would learn his religious principle and spread it in the world, he completely avoided the Pharisees. They are fixed in their ways and in their minds. They can no longer learn. They can no longer change. The “sinners” are much better. They know they are sinners, they can learn, and they can change. So Jesus invites Matthew the tax collector, the public sinner, to join him. When Matthew’s friends, the tax collectors, hear that there is a man of God, Jesus, who accepts them as they are, they flock to him to celebrate the good news.

No one invited the Pharisees, but since they had taken it upon themselves to act as God’s law enforcement agents, they had to show up and ruin the party. They interrogate Jesus’ followers: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:11). Jesus intervenes and answers them, first with a popular proverb: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (verse 12), then with the words of scripture: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (verse 13a), and finally in his own words: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (verse 13b).

Today’s gospel is much food for thought for all who seek God. Godliness is more than keeping laws. If it was only a matter of observing laws, the Pharisees would be saints. Godliness has more to do with our ability to admit that we are all sinners. This will make us more disposed to learn and to change our ways, more disposed to accept other people as they are. We shall conclude with a prayer by Peter Marshall: “Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with.”

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