Homily for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 5, 2005

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Hosea 6:3-6; Psalm 50; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13)


“It is mercy that I desire, and not sacrifice.”

It has been noted that when Jesus meets Matthew the tax collector, Matthew does two different things.

First, when called to “Follow me” he immediately leaves his station and obeys the call of the Lord. Then secondly, he turns around and offers Jesus hospitality. He invites Jesus to share his table — a very significant sign in Semitic culture.

We need to step back from Matthew’s table and realize that by merely associating with Matthew at all Jesus has already placed himself outside of respectable Jewish society.

I’ve tried for years to figure out a modern analog in order to comprehend just how loathsome the figure of a tax gatherer was in the time of Jesus. Imagine that some foreign invader has overtaken our country; something we in America have never had to face, thank God. Every aspect of life is controlled by this occupation force; you have no freedom at all. And then imagine that you discover that your next-door neighbor, a fellow countryman, has decided to take a position in the governmental apparatus of the occupiers. He’s going to do their dirty work and exact tribute from the people. And be especially tough in extorting money from the poorest of your fellow citizens.

Tax collectors weren’t just bureaucrats helping the Roman conquerors, as bad as that might be. They were fellow Jews who collaborated.

So Jesus accepts Matthew’s hospitality and finds himself eating and drinking with “sinners.” These are people who disregard the Torah and the Covenant, people who have given up their faith.

Let’s pause right there and ask ourselves a question: If I were inviting Jesus to share my table — if you were inviting him — who else would we invite?

Maybe the mayor? City council? Certainly the archbishop! Perhaps the Bond Hill Community Council president. The president of the local Knights of Columbus? And for sure we daren’t forget the president of St. Agnes Women’s Sodality. . .

Matthew’s hospitality places Jesus in the midst of those who were looked down upon and scorned by the religious, upright people of his day. Putting it in today’s language, it would be: “these people don’t go to church!” “They’ve given up the practice of the faith!”

Are we sitting on the side of Jesus and Matthew? Or do we identify with the Pharisees? Because that is what they said: “This is a disgrace! This man can’t be a genuine prophet, the Holy One of Israel!”

As his way of responding to this attack Jesus takes his hearers back into their own history, to God’s revelation at the time of Hosea, some 600 years earlier. What does God really desire of us?

We learn that the people of Hosea’s day, in the Northern Kingdom, performed all the appropriate rituals. They offered their sacrifices to the Lord. They did all the right things. They practiced their faith.

But it was all on the surface, all external. The prophet gives us a wonderful image to capture it: “your piety is like the dew that early passes away.” You know what it’s like to rise early and see the beauty of the dew on the grass. There are tiny pearls on each blade, it’s all so lovely — and by 10am the sun has burned it away and it is all gone. The rituals are all perfect — but there is no substance there.

The Lord desires our hearts. And it is so easy to substitute performance of the rituals. To “go to church.”

What does this have to do with our world today? Let me share with you two experiences. One is of people who don’t ‘get it’ and the other is of someone who does.

I was reading the other day an account of a New York Times reporter who went to look in on the big convention of the National Religious Broadcasters. This is a very powerful body of people. They control hundreds of TV and radio outlets and some of their stars are syndicated on many stations across our country.

The reporter observed their behavior for two days. They were very well dressed and coiffured; very respectable. Not many people of color there, to be sure. But more tellingly, he began to take note of the way they quoted the Scriptures. The whole event was all about Jesus — but their quotes were almost exclusively from the book of Revelation. All that wild imaginative apocalyptic stuff whose meaning solid Scripture scholars have a hard time trying to decipher. Little or not reference to the Gospels. Not much chance of hearing the Jesus who warns that it is not those who cry “Lord! Lord!” who will enter the kingdom but rather those who do the will of the Father. No reference to the Father who lets the sun shine on good or bad alike. No allusion to the Lord’s commendation of the widow who gave, not out of her surplus but out of the little she had. And surely no reference to the Beatitudes, where we are challenged to humility and identifying with the weak and broken, to being peacemakers.

There is a new term we are beginning to hear about such people. It is Dominionism. These people are intent on having Christians take dominion over the other peoples on the earth. The reporter noted that anyone who dares to challenge their point of view is immediately labeled an ally of Satan, an enemy to be destroyed.

Imagine who these people would invite to share the table with Jesus. Or better who they would not want anywhere near him, those they would exclude. People who have been Americans for years but still don’t speak English? Single mothers struggling to raise their children? For sure those disgusting gays and lesbians. And good civil servants who have to make difficult decisions as judges in our courts, and whom they can’t stand because they happen to come up with conclusions that reject their interpretations of our Constitution. In short, anyone who is not like them.

My second image is of one of those they would consider an enemy, a Satan. You may have read about her.

Her name is Captain MeLinda Morton. She is a Protestant chaplain in the Air Force. Captain Morton is one of the chaplains at the US Air Force Academy. It turns out she began to notice that a very disturbing culture is being fostered at the academy. There are very clear signs of direct proselytizing by the leaders at the academy. Any cadet who is not born again is ostracized and made to feel second class.

Now MeLinda Morton can certainly not be said to be against Jesus. She has given her life to ministry. And she is a Lutheran, which does not exactly represent some wishy-washy theology or relativism.

But she knows religious oppression and manipulation when she experiences it.

So, quite aware that she is putting her whole military career on the line, she first tries to get the authorities at the academy to rectify the situation and, when that fails, she goes public: this is wrong! And of course she pays the price. She is sent to Okinawa and will never advance further in the military.

The religious broadcasters, and the commanders at the Air Force Academy, display all the externals about Jesus. MeLinda Morton understands his proclamation about the hospitality of our God.

The Lord has not come for the righteous, the respectable, but for the sick. We — you and I — are those sinners seated with Matthew and Jesus at the table. Christ does not seek empty rituals, “going to church.” The Lord asks that we act toward one another with mercy and compassion. With deeds of hospitality and welcome.

We stand in a Communion line each week with people who lie and cheat and steal; people who are lustful and irresponsible and lazy; people who are eaten up with anger and doubt and resentments of every sort. Ourselves. It is this ragtag lot that our God loves with a compassion that knows no exclusion.

As we receive the hospitality of the Lord, let us pray that we may learn what he asks of us: mercy and no empty sacrifice.