As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13
Saturday After Ash Wednesday
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”Luke 5:30
The banquet at Levi’s house was a preview of paradise when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will recline with “tax collectors and sinners” at the feast in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11). God became “sin” so that sinners might become “righteous” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.
The Divine Thief, crucified between thieves, broke into our earthly house to take back his spoils (Luke 11:22). The Divine Tax Collector ate with tax collectors to gather his coins, stamped with his image, and bring them back to the Father (Mark 12:16-17; Matthew 22:21-22; Luke 20:24-25).1
God became the guest of sinners so that sinners may return to God as his beloved guests at the heavenly banquet.
Out of Heaven’s treasury
Abba’s newly minted Coin
Stamped with divine royalty
Was sent to Earth to purloin.
Tax collectors hosting Christ—
Coins of the Tax Collector—
Were rifled by Abba’s heist
And restored by the Doctor.
Dusty coins out of the ground
Imprinted by the Spirit,
Freshly minted, graced and crowned,
Stamped for the heav’nly banquet.
1 In patristic thought, humankind is the coin of God stamped with the divine image.
Jews usually turned away as they passed the customs place where Matthew, the tax-collector, was sitting. But look at our gospel for today:
“As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”
To celebrate their new friendship, Matthew invited Jesus to a banquet at his house with his friends – tax collectors like himself – and Jesus came with some of his disciples. They were criticized immediately for breaking one of Capernaum’s social codes. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ answer was quick: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Hardly anything is known of Matthew’s part in Jesus’ later ministry, yet surely the tradition must be correct that says he recorded much of what Jesus said and did. Tax collectors were good at keeping books. Was Matthew’s task to keep memories? Did he remember some things that were especially related to his world?
The gospels say that wherever Jesus went he was welcomed by tax collectors. When he entered Jericho, Zachaeus, the chief tax collector of the city, climbed a tree to see him pass, since the crowds were so great. Did Matthew point out the man in the tree to Jesus, a tax collector like himself, who brought them all to his house, where Jesus left his blessing of salvation? And did tax collectors in other towns come to Jesus because they recognized one of their own among his companions?
Probably so. Jesus always looked kindly on outsiders like Matthew who were targets of suspicion and resentment. True, they belonged to a compromised profession tainted by greed, dishonesty and bribery. Their dealings were not always according to the fine line of right or wrong.
But they were children of God and, like lost sheep, Jesus would not let them be lost.
Pope Francis said he got his vocation to be a priest on the Feast of St. Matthew, when he went to confession and heard God’s call, a call of mercy.
The gospels themselves recall little about Matthew, an apostle of Jesus. We have his name, his occupation and a brief story of a banquet that took place with Jesus and some of his friends after his call. ( Mt 9: 9-13; Mk 2:3-12; Lk5:18-26) As it is, the gospels concentrate on the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
In the early centuries, those who knew Jesus told his story and brought his message to the world. As they died, writings about him gradually appeared, but there are only scarce references to who wrote them. St. Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century speaks of the “memoirs of the apostles”, without indicating any author by name. Later in that century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writing against the Gnostics who claim a superior knowledge of Jesus Christ attributes the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are eyewitnesses who really know Jesus firsthand; they have given us their “memoirs.”
Scholars today are less likely to credit Matthew’s Gospel to the tax-collector from Capernaum whom Jesus called. Some of his memoirs perhaps may be there– after all he came from a profession good at accounting for things. But too many indications point to other sources. Why would Matthew, if he is an eyewitness, depend on Mark’s Gospel as he does? Language, the structure of the gospel, the circumstances it addresses, point to a Jewish-Christian area beyond Palestine as its source, probably Antioch in Syria, probably written around the year 8o, after the Gospel of Mark.
Traditions says that Matthew preached in Ethiopia and Persia, but they have no historical basis.
He is remembered as a martyr who died for the faith, but again there is no historical basis.
Better to see Matthew as the gospel sees him: one of the first outsiders whom Jesus called. And he would not be the last..
In Luke’s gospel Jesus often sides with those so let down by life that they hardly dream of anything better– tax collectors, widows, sinners like the prodigal son. They call out for God’s mercy.
We’re reading the parable about the tax collector praying in the back of the temple from Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 18, 9-14) Earlier, Luke recalls that Jesus sat down at table with Matthew and some of his tax collector friends in Capernaum. He was criticized frequently for associating with people like that, so he must have done it often enough.
Staying at a distance, eyes down, the tax collector says only a few words:“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer is so different, so full of himself. He seems to ask only for applause and approval. The tax collector asks only for mercy.
His prayer is heard so shouldn’t we make it our own? Tax-collectors, widows and sinners stand closest to where all humanity stands. We all need God’s mercy. We come to God empty-handed.
“O God come to my assistance. O Lord make haste to help me.”
Call for God’s mercy, St. Paul of the Cross often counseled: “I wish you to remain in your horrible nothingness, knowing that you have nothing, can do nothing and know nothing. God doesn’t do anything for those who wish to be something; but one who is aware of his nothingness in truth, is ready. ‘If anyone thinks himself to be something, he deceives himself,’ said the Apostle, whose name I bear unworthily. (St. Paul of the Cross, Letter 1033)
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
33rd Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday (Year II)
At that time Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature.
Zacchaeus, one of the most hated and ostracized men in Jericho, desperately wanted to see Jesus. Stories about the poor, humble son of a carpenter must have touched his heart deeply because he was ready to change his life radically.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.
The diminutive Zacchaeus perched like a lonely bird on a housetop (Psalm 102:7) and scanned the mob for his savior.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
Surprise! Zacchaeus was found by the one he was looking for and invited to be his host.
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
Like Levi the tax collector, Zacchaeus promptly followed Jesus and received him into his home (Luke 5:27-32). A large gathering of tax collectors had dined with Jesus at Levi’s house in Capernaum. News of this astounding event had likely spread from Galilee to Jericho, preparing Zacchaeus to receive Jesus. What sort of wonder-working rabbi ate with tax collectors (Luke 7:34)? Up the tree he shinnied and down he dropped to see the man face to face. His heart was filled with joy and gratitude.
When they saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
Tax collectors were branded as outcasts in society for they served as henchmen for the Romans. “The Romans sold the task of collecting the taxes in any particular area to the highest bidder. The person appointed did not receive any salary for his work; he simply collected as much money as he could, and he kept for himself what was left over after he had paid the agreed sum to the Romans.”1
Wealth was guaranteed the tax collector at the price of exclusion from the friendship of his fellow countrymen. Thus tax collectors banded together and formed their own society. Jesus, the “friend of tax collectors,” offered hope and a new path out of their abominable life.
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”
Zacchaeus became a new man. Years of accumulating wealth at the expense of his neighbors left him spiritually poor, empty and alone. He found his real treasure in Jesus of Nazareth and let go of false wealth to follow him. Fourfold restitution echoed the Law and the Prophets: a stolen sheep or lamb must be replaced with four others (Exodus 21:37; 2 Samuel 12:6). Zacchaeus found the Lamb of God. He no longer wished to horde the lamb of mammon.
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
Jesus declared Zacchaeus, the chief lackey of the Romans, a true son of Abraham, a recognition that would have outraged his Jewish brethren. No longer an outsider, Jesus invited Zacchaeus into his own Father’s house.
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
1 New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 1010.
Luke often tells stories of God’s mercy. Today we’re reading at Mass the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. His story is lesson about mercy. (Luke 19, 1-10)
As chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. As archeologists uncover the ruins of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere, it’s evident he built on a grand scale and lavishly, to impress his allies the Romans.
You needed money for building like that, of course, and that’s where tax-collectors came in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers around Nazareth and the shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the merchants in Jericho and get what I need; I don’t care how, but get it.”
And so the tax collectors went out and got the money, keeping some for themselves. You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It left you hard headed and hard hearted. An unsavory profession. People resented them.
Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, was the one whom Jesus called and the one he stayed with on his way to Jerusalem.
The only thing Jesus says is: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings or stern corrections. Salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. You can hear in the story echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.
Notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him, as he told another tax-collector, Matthew. He doesn’t tell him to give up his job and get out of that dirty, complicated situation. No, as far as we can tell Zacchaeus was still chief tax-collector in Jericho after Jesus left, still taking orders from Herod Antipas, still part of a sinful world. But that’s where Zacchaeus will experience salvation, even there.
God’s mercy works in the real world and in real life.
We celebrate two days at the beginning of November that look beyond this world to the world to come: the Feast of All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd. The Feast of All Saints is not just a feast of canonized saints, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, Peter and Paul, Mother Teresa. It celebrates our belief that a great number– beyond counting according to St. John– are with God now. Each of us knows some good and faithful people who must be among them.
What about All Souls Day? I wonder if on that day we recognize there’s human weakness, as well as human goodness, in those God calls for judgment. They need God’s purifying mercy for their sins, their misuse of God’s gifts, their meanness, their lack of faith and hope and love. We know people like that too, maybe we can see ourselves in them.
The more important of these two November days is the Feast of All Saints, which proclaims the God’s mercy to be stronger than our sinfulness. It’s beyond what we expect. We hope and pray for it.
Our readings for this Sunday are about God’s mercy, a mercy that pursues us through this life and into the next. (Wisdom 11, 22-12,20) Our gospel story about the call of Zacchaeus is a special lesson in God’s mercy. Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector in Jericho, is a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and then stayed in his house on his way to Jerusalem. (Luke 19, 1-10)
As Jericho’s chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists are still uncovering ruins of a good many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere. He built on a grand scale and he built lavishly, to impress his allies, the Romans.
Of course, you need money for his kind of building, and that’s where tax-collectors come in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And the tax collectors went out and got him the money, and kept some for themselves.
You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. People bitterly resented the tax collectors. Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho, led them all, and he was the one whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem.
The only words Jesus said to Zacchaeus, according to the gospel, are these: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings or stern corrections. Jesus declares that salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. In this story you can hear echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.
Zacchaeus encountered the goodness and mercy of God in Jesus and it changed him. Goodness and mercy changes people. When we encounter the goodness and mercy of God we’re changed too.
We have to ask: Is God’s mercy a thing of the past, or limited only to this life? Will it also pursue us in death? Jesus will judge us at that moment. Will his judgment of us be like his judgment of Zacchaeus? When he calls us home, will he be merciful as he was to the tax-collector?
We see now in signs; we hear promises. Then we will see him face to face, and his goodness will change us, the sight of him will purify us.
God’s mercy pursues us, now in signs, then face to face. As we look upon the Bread come down from heaven at Mass we hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” God’s mercy is proclaimed, as it was for Zacchaeus, at a supper.