Homily for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 8, 2008

St. Martin dePorres, Cincinnati

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

“Go and learn the meaning of the words.”

Go and learn the meaning of the words: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The account in today’s Gospel is not just a nice little story of how Jesus puts the Pharisees in their place.

With his response Jesus issues a challenge that goes to the heart of the biblical message. It raises two crucial and inseparable questions: Who do we think we are? And: Who do we think our God is?

The answer Jesus gives to the attack of the Pharisees takes his hearers back 700 years, to the time of the prophet Hosea.

What was going on then?

The Assyrians were menacing them, and the Hosea’s people of the northern kingdom, Israel, had abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. They were worshiping Baal, a pagan fertility god. Their religion had been changed from one of relationship to God to a form of magic: if we just perform these rites our god Baal has to respond by giving us water and grain and oil and human fertility. They had even introduced sacred prostitution: have sex with one of the god’s courtesans and you will be blessed with the favors of Baal.

They had forgotten the covenant that gave them their very identity as a people, that made them who they were. Listen to what Hosea says in another place:


When Israel was a child I loved him,

      out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

      the farther they went from me,

Sacrificing to the Baals

      and burning incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught [them] to walk,

      who took them in my arms;

I drew them with human cords,

      with bands of love;

I fostered them like one

      who raises an infant to his cheeks;


      Yet though I stooped to feed my child,

            they did not know I was their healer. (11: 1-4)


Instead of the God who made them out of love they worshiped things, the work of their own hands.


And so through the mouth of the prophet Yahweh tells them what God wants – which is a way of telling them who God is: “I desire mercy, not your sacrifices.” You may have noticed that in the first reading from Hosea the word used is love, whereas in the Gospel the same text is translated as mercy. The reality is that neither translation does justice to the original Hebrew word. Biblical scholars tell us that the word carries so many rich overtones that it is almost impossible to put in a single English word. It speaks of fidelity, of something that is rooted deep in the heart. Mercy; and empathy; a solidarity that touches the core of one’s being. In other places Jesus speaks of loving the Lord with one’s whole mind and one’s whole heart. It is the total opposite of merely fulfilling rituals, going through one’s paces, or living on the surface. The partner in the covenant loves Israel – loves us – the way a mother or father loves their child.


And so at Matthew’s banquet table Jesus tells them – and us – to remember. To go back and retrieve the story of their origins. To the liberating act of Yahweh that made them who they are. They were exiles. Oppressed and powerless, in a hostile land. Until the Lord led them out and fashioned them into a people. This is who they – and we – are. This is the kind of God we are called to worship from the heart.


They had forgotten their very story and the covenant, and here they are, 700 years later, in the time of Jesus, once again relying on externals, on dead rituals and sacrifices.


We have to be careful when we speak of the Pharisees, you know. We’ve had 2000 years of Christian history, of listening to the parables of Jesus. We even have an English expression – ‘pharisaical’ or hypocritical. We need to remind ourselves that the Pharisees were quite upstanding religious citizens. They were characterized by a strict piety. They did everything that was religiously right and proper. The pillars of the community. The difficulty lies in the fact that it was all based on a purity code. There were animals that were clean and those that were unclean. There were foods that were clean and those that were unclean, and dishes that were clean and unclean.


And, sadly, there were people who were considered ‘clean’ or ‘unclean.’ There were ‘ins’ and ‘outs.’ People that a God-fearing Jew would want to be seen with and people no one would deign to consort with – lest they become ‘unclean’ merely from the contact. There were boundaries. And they distorted the Law to define them.


And among the unclean were ‘sinners’ – those who didn’t keep all the law. And tax-gatherers.


It’s interesting to think about how one became a tax-collector. They were fellow Jews, after all. You got to be a tax-collector by bidding for the contract. When you won the franchise you had the power to dun your fellow religionists. And you did it in the name and with the power of those who were oppressing them, the Roman occupation forces. They were the agents of the emperor – who claimed divinity for himself. When you realize all that, it’s easy enough to see how the pious Pharisees had a reason for shunning them. Some might not have been the most savory characters.


The people at Matthew’s banquet knew their scriptures. So Jesus confronts them, almost harshly: “Go back and learn the meaning of the words!” You should know better.


What had all the prophets drilled into them again and again down through their story? Their fulfillment of the Covenant was tied in essentially with the way they treated three groups of people specially loved by the Lord: the orphans, and the widows, and the aliens in the land. They were the outsiders, the people who had no rights, who didn’t count. This is the way you express the kind of people I have made you to be!

I don’t want empty sacrifices, I want compassion and solidarity with those who have no voice and can’t defend themselves.


When Matthew heard the invitation of Jesus to follow him, he responded immediately. But it’s interesting to see the first expression of his commitment. He shows hospitality. He welcomes this meddling stranger. He gives him a banquet. He practices one of the most serious implications of the biblical covenant (indeed, of the whole Middle Eastern cultures). Hospitality. I was an outsider and you welcomed me to your table.


And this same word of Jesus is addressed to us today.


In the coming months of the election campaign, and for much time after it, we will hear many references to the situation of the undocumented in our midst. We must work to keep the politicians – of any party – from making them into political footballs, for their own political purposes. They are, for our time, the ‘aliens in the land.’


Instead, our first response to them and their situation must be to let their situation remind us of who we are: immigrants and aliens all. There is not one among us who did not arrive on these shores with their enormous blessings as an outsider, an immigrant, an alien. And at a more profound level we have all been freed from one form of captivity after another by a liberating God. We did not make ourselves, nor did we earn the blessings we have experienced.


As citizens, and even more, as Christians we are called to examine the candidates, as well as any proposed piece of legislation or enforcement, from the perspective of our identity with these fellow human beings. We do not know a priori which particular proposals will produce the best balance of competing interests in the complex situation we face. But we are called to bring a fundamental criterion to wrestle with the moral choice: does this proposal recognize these men and women as equal in dignity and respect to the rest of us immigrants? Does it promote the integrity of their families?


Cardinal Mahoney has gone farther. He has told the people of Los Angeles that if they are called to act as enforcers of unjust laws he will lead them in acts of civil disobedience.


We pray that it may not come to that. But meanwhile we must be alert and engaged, and work actively against laws that could result in violating their civil and human rights.


The reality is that the same issue that confronted the people of Hosea’s time and the time of Jesus 700 years later is with us in our day. Our good intentions and our religious practices mean nothing if we exclude anyone from the circle of our love or allow our laws to become the vehicle for diminishing the humanity of the least of our brothers and sisters.


I am the Lord, who led you out of Egypt. Go and learn the meaning of the words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.