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The Public Sinner

by Jul 5, 2024Friar Reflection

When we think of Jesus’ miracles, we usually think of the curing of sick people, the calming of the storm, or the raising of the dead. Today we see another miracle. Matthew was a tax collector for the Roman government. Probably a collection of road toll taxes or customs tax. He was a chief tax collector, which meant he had a whole net of other tax collectors working for him. Tax collectors were considered publicans, public sinners. They were despicable people, hated by all. They were seen as people who got rich by overcharging others. Plus, they worked for the Romans. Matthew’s sin was right out there in public, everyone knew who he was and what he did. The publicans were tax collectors, prostitutes, hit men, and the like – all those who publicly lived outside of Israel’s rules about holiness. No one could associate with them for fear of becoming ritually impure like them. They were not welcomed in any household and could not enter the temple to pray. So, since Matthew could not associate with other people, naturally, all his friends would be other publicans.

Jesus being a good, pious Jew, a noted teacher, should never have associated himself with Matthew or anyone remotely like Matthew. Yet, Jesus goes to Matthew and calls him to get up from the tax collection table. Jesus goes to dine at Matthew’s house. Matthew’s house was full of his friends, all of the other publicans. Jesus shares his life with their life. This is a miracle of mercy. The other folks in town, the pious people, could not understand this. Simple association with publicans would have contaminated Jesus and rendered him unclean or unfit to enter the temple to pray.

Jesus steps beyond the letter of the law and brings in the spirit of mercy. He calls Matthew into a life of communion with God, a life of salvation. Matthew stood up and left behind his life of abusing others to begin serving others. Jesus re-establishes Matthew’s relationship with the community and put him back into the chosen people.

All of us are like Matthew in that we are sinners. It’s just that we try to hide our sins from public view with an external façade of holiness. Jesus reaches into our hidden life with the mercy of God to place us all back into a good relationship with God and with others. Whether our sin is public or hidden, we are all called to conversion and to live in the mercy of God sharing that mercy with others.

Go and learn the meaning of the words,

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.