HOMILY WEEK 13 05 – Year I
Following Jesus More Closely
Optional Memorial:St. Anthony Zaccaria
(Gen 23:1-24:62-67; Ps 106; Mt 9:9-13)
“Follow me” – two cryptic words spoken by Jesus that changed a troubled person’s life, and can change ours as well.
Today’s liturgy invites us to follow Jesus into a more compassionate way of living.
The next sentence in the gospel, “And Matthew got up and followed him,” is just as striking as those first two words. Just like that, Matthew left his career behind and threw in his lot with this itinerant preacher Jesus. Could it really have been like that?
Perhaps Matthew himself is using a bit of literary license for the sake of brevity. However, at the root of many vocation stories is a common element – an underlying, subtle, hard-to-define, vague longing for something more – a sense of being unfulfilled, of something more heroic over the horizon.
Sometimes this longing is called a spirituality of human incompleteness, a reality that God uses to call us to greater things. St. Augustine put it this way: “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee.” That is probably where Matthew was at – all his status, career of extortion and amassing of money did not really satisfy that yearning for more in his heart, and when he heard those words “Follow me” something fell into place and he just knew that his fulfillment at long last was at hand, in a way that even he could not explain, and he got up and followed Jesus.
Hopefully, we can all identify with Matthew, and respond to that call to follow Jesus more radically, whatever our chosen path and state of life is – God is always calling us to follow his Son Jesus more closely, and to give up whatever may be holding us back from doing so – some preoccupation, some sin or wrongdoing, some negative attitude, perhaps even some addiction. We are all called to practice the spirituality of letting go!
There are two other aspects of this call of Matthew that we must also attend to: Jesus came to call not the righteous, but sinners, and Jesus wants mercy, not sacrifice.
Ron Rolheiser OMI offers an interesting insight into the question of Jesus associating with sinners. He asks, does the fact that Jesus leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go after the one lost sheep, and here, associates with sinners and not the pious Pharisees, mean that God loves sinners more than righteous people? His answer is no, because there are no righteous people! – we are all sinners, to one degree or other. The ninety-nine sheep are also lost and in the wilderness. Pope Francis has precisely this same understanding when he openly proclaims that he also is a sinner, an attitude that we all would do well to adopt and live out.
The statement that Jesus wants mercy and not sacrifice must have stung the Pharisees who were questioning him. A little background is helpful here. When the glory (shekinah) of God that had left the first temple due to the corrupt religiosity of the Jewish religion at that time did not return to the second temple, the Jewish religious leaders were greatly troubled. The Pharisees reasoned that if they could live the law perfectly, that would bring the glory of God back to the temple. So, they made a legalistic keeping of the law and amassing of sacrifices the core of their religious practice, which made them quite judgmental and less merciful. They actually had sunk into Pelagianism, a heresy of thinking one could earn God’s favor. No wonder Jesus had to confront them with the shocking truth – what God wants is mercy, not sacrifice.
It is amazing how our own Catholic faith has and perhaps still can cling to vestiges of that kind of thinking to this day – a perhaps even unconscious attitude of amassing points with God by what we do and say to make ourselves feel worthy. For some, this can become a “feel good” religion that is far from the heart of the gospel. My own father, God bless him, used to tell us “Il faut mériter le ciel” – one has to earn or deserve heaven. That was a vestige of that thinking!
Richard Rohr has a penetrating analysis of externalism in religion: “The real problem is our modern private and personal decision for Jesus as my Lord and Savior vocabulary, without any real transformation of consciousness or social critique on the part of too many Christians. Faith itself became a good work that I could perform.Such a mechanical notion of salvation frequently led to all the right religious words, without much indication of self-critical or culturally critical behavior. Usually, there was little removal of most defects of character, and many Christians have remained thoroughly materialistic, warlike, selfish, racist, sexist, and greedy for power and money, while relying on amazing grace to snatch them into heaven at the end. And it may, but they did not bring much heaven onto this earth to help the rest of us, nor did they speed up their own salvation in the present.”
Pope Francis, again, has it right with his insistence of the priority of mercy over all else, and his urging all people to go to the margins and to the periphery to encounter God not in the prim and proper, but in the messy and questionable.
There is a fine line to this that perhaps an example might help to clarify. It was Corpus Christi Sunday in a northern mission and Bob, the parish worker, was looking for one more person to help carry the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament for a procession to the grotto. He put the pole into the hands of George who happened to be the closest person to him at the back of the church. So, George walked close to Jesus all the way to the grotto.
It so happened that George was not married and living with someone (perhaps why he was standing at the back of the church). The next day he called the pastor to inquire about getting married. It seems that this experience of being so close to Jesus during that walk worked him over, stirred up some guilt in him and moved him to decide with his partner to get married.
Reflect on this incident a moment: Had Bob been more pharisaical, he would have judged George unworthy to help carry the canopy. Thinking him a public sinner, Bob would have chosen someone else and George would have stayed in his irregular situation. Is this not how Jesus operates? Associating with sinners, not judging them, just loving them with the hope that their experience of being so loved with compassion, understood and yet challenged, would lead them to transformation like George?
Today the church honors St. Anthony Zaccaria, who was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1502. Both a physician and priest, he was greatly inspired by St. Paul. Anthony was the founder of the Clerks Regular of Saint Paul (known as the Barnabites with their headquarters at the church of St Barnabas in Milan). He encouraged the laity to work with the clergy in helping the poor and promoted frequent reception of communion. Anthony died in 1539 at age 37 and was canonized in 1897.
The Eucharist is just another example of that compassionate, accepting yet challenging love of God. We are all unworthy to be here, as we pray just before communion, yet God longs for us to be here, sinners that we are, to perhaps be moved to some change in our lives out of that experience of being loved, forgiven and healed.
May our celebration today empower us, sinners that we are, to follow Jesus more closely into a more compassionate way of life.