AUGUST 2020 RECOLLECTION: Jesus and the Publican
Translated by Fray Hubert Dunstan Decena, OAR
Possibly one of the most beautiful paintings of Caravaggio is the Call of Matthew. It is conserved in the Roman Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. In this painting we can see how a beam of light enters through an open window, and this light –which is placed above the figure of Christ – is seen resting directly on the face of St. Matthew, while the finger of Christ points at him. For his part, St. Matthew, with red beard, points to himself with a finger, unable to believe that it is precisely him whom Jesus is calling. Around St. Matthew we can see the curtain, the tax office where two attractive persons are placed to the left of the frame, who had not noticed the presence of Jesus, for they are very busy counting money. Another person who leans amicably on the shoulder of Matthew, gives Jesus a challenging look, not being affected by his presence, like a figure of indifference to the call of Christ. Despite everything, the fundamental message of the painting is given to us by the face of Matthew, for it expresses surprise, admiration, stupor, awe in face of the designs of God and the merciful gaze of the Lord, whose eyes see things differently from men’s. St. Matthew by his profession was considered a public sinner, and therefore formed part of persons marginalized and despised by the society of his time. For this reason, today we also will meditate on those of our actual world who are marginalized and discriminated against for varied motives.
Enter into yourself.
Let us prepare ourselves for this day of recollection and encounter with God. Let us acknowledge that our life moves in the perimeter of the infinite mercy of God, and that it is his loving grace that always enfolds our lives. Let us observe a moment of silence before we invoke the Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit, grant that we acknowledge our weaknesses and our sins, that we may never believe ourselves perfect and absolutely holy, for all our hope is put in your great mercy; give us, Lord, what you command and command what you will. We ask this of you who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen (conf. 10,40).
Your voice is my joy.
With heart well-disposed and with serenity, and reading from the heart, I allow the following words to fall into my interior like seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven.
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.” (Mt. 9:9-13).
The firmament of the Scriptures.
The call of Matthew is one of the classic scenes of said Gospel. It consists of two parts: Verse 9 has the scene of the call, while verses 10 – 13 present the scene of the meal offered to Jesus. Both parts are important, although it is in the second where there is a significant theological content, because it is there that the consequences of the call are developed. On the one hand, manifested is the mercy of God towards all especially for sinners, giving them opportunity to change their life; on the other, is the scorn of the religious elite, who rule the religious and daily life of the people.
The call of Matthew has a central element, the following of Jesus. If we look through the other “call” narrative, we see dialogues or narratives that help us intuit that the person ‘called’ had a previous contact with Jesus before being called (e.g. Peter, Andrew, James, John, even Nathanael). In Matthew’s case, the ‘called’ is surprised and yet gave immediate response. The text alone indicates that he arose from the table and followed him, without calling attention to the uprooting nature of the response. (cf. Mc. 1:18-20; et passim, Jn. 1:35-50). The tax collector rises from the table and follows Jesus. Actually, the scene will be completed with a meal in his house. Apparently, the situation would indicate a kind of conversation like that of Zacchaeus. Later in chapter 10, Matthew will appear in the list of the twelve Apostles, those close to Jesus, calling him “the publican.”
To be publican. The point of departure is this: Jesus calls a public sinner to follow him and this choice of Jesus will serve to show that there is an enormous distance between God and man. While Jesus becomes the minister of divine mercy (vv. 12-13), the Pharisees become the spokesmen of condemnation (not only of Matthew and the publicans but of Jesus himself, v. 11). This reflects abandonment of God’s will: while the Pharisees act on merely human criteria (the publicans are considered sinners for collaborating with the Roman Empire), Jesus speaks from the Word of God.
In this sense, the scene of the meal is a manifestation of God’s mercy in opposition to human conduct that acts only form one’s own criteria, even if it invokes God as guarantee (v. 12). Jesus goes back to the word of God and recalls the prophet Hosea (6:6) and the more authentic prophetic tradition: not the sacrifices nor the religious rituals please God, but the heart that is offered (v.13). Jesus actualizes the word of God and the concept of mercy, giving it back its original meaning.
In this way, the word of Jesus calls, reconciles, forgives and opens a new life to whoever –like Matthew, Zacchaeus, and other public sinners- allow themselves to be touched and transformed by it, and makes of these new lives an offering pleasing to God.
St. Augustine, on commenting over our text today, calls attention first on the vice of pride of those who judged with human criteria, and feel themselves strong and secure, believing that they would be saved by their own works. He thus points out those Pharisees who despised Jesus for eating with sinners, believing that only they are just and holy, without understanding the paths of God’s mercy.
There were some who considered themselves just, and despised the Lord who did not hesitate to join with sinners in the banquets, and who ate with publicans and sinners. To these arrogant and powerful and conceited men of the world, who greatly gloried in their salvation, a salvation invented by themselves, and which they did not possess, what did the Lord answer them? The healthy do not need the physician, the sick people do (en. Ps. 61:13).
St. Augustine points out that their pride impedes that Christ be their physician, because they consider themselves healthy, believe themselves just though in reality they were not, because they were full of pride, and this same pride makes them despise Christ himself and bring him to the Cross, for he was contrary to their ideas. They were the sick people who instead of recognizing their sickness, killed the physician. Then he called the just healthy, not because the Pharisees were so, but because they believed it so. In their pride, finding themselves sick, they repudiated the physician; and when the sickness became serious, they went so far as to kill the physician (en. Ps. 61:13).
Therefore, so that Christ could truly heal the wounds of the heart and forgive sins, it is necessary to have the humility to acknowledge one’s own fragility and to know that we are sick because of our sins. This is what St. Augustine does in his Confessions as an invitation to humility and to truth, where it is necessary to acknowledge one’s own sickness, not deny it, so that the divine Physician can heal us. Behold, I do not hide my wounds. You are the physician and I am sick; you are merciful and I am miserable. Isn’t is perhaps that the life of man on earth is a temptation (a trial)?(conf. 10, 39).
On the other hand, St. Augustine comments on the words of Jesus that cites the prophet Hosea (6:6), “I desire mercy not sacrifices.” For the Bishop of Hipona these words are an invitation to offer God the sacrifice of mercy, i.e., almsgiving, to recognize Christ himself in the person of the poor and the invalid. St. Augustine connects these words with the text of Mt. 25: 31-46, at the last judgment, where Christ points out that any good deed done to one of the least and the humblest of his brothers is done to him. St. Augustine invites us to despise no one, but always to be merciful because Christ is present in every person.
One went to the ancient temple, which was a shadow of the future, with heifers, sheep and goats, with animals of varied species, fit for the sacrifice, … Now has already come the blood that all of them prefigured; the King came in person and he likes gifts. What gifts does he like? Almsgiving…. Come, he says, you blessed by my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Why? I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink…. When did we see you thus? And he, who is above and below, by the messengers who go up and down, will answer: When you did it to one of my smallest brother, you did it to me (en. Ps. 44:27).
The dress for the feast are love and mercy that one must wear to be able to enter into the banquet of the kingdom of heaven (cf. s. 95,7).
The cry of the poor.
The dictionary defines discrimination as the difference in treatment or favor of a person or group by reason of race, religion, politics, sex, age, physical or mental condition among many. Discrimination, therefore, is a source of inequality that wounds the dignity of a person or group of persons and their human rights.
There are abundant aspects toward which discrimination is directed. As regards race or ethnic origin there is slavery, apartheid, antisemitism, the violence between gangs of distinct race and the conviction that some indigenous groups have low intellectual capacity. In the religious aspect there is the discrimination of minority groups in a country or region, the prohibition of a belief, and the maltreatment or assassinations for belonging to another religion. As regards sex we find discrimination against women, the aversion against men and women who are homosexuals, transsexuals, metrosexuals and effeminates. In the aspect of labor, especially pregnant women are discriminated against, the incapacitated and the mentally ill. As regards age, there is discrimination against the elderly, the children and adolescents. In relation to social rights, there are groups, like the migrants, who are deprived of fundamental rights: the decent job, the social security and education. As regards personality, there is discrimination against the introverts; among these bullying is frequent, psychological maltreatment, verbal or physical squeeze, mobbing or job harassment. As regards economic income, there is discrimination against the poor ones.
My name is Paula, I am twenty-one years old, and I am biracial: my father is black and my mother is white. It was in school where I suffered much racism. My mother decided to put me in a private school at the south of Madrid, and the truth is that despite being private, it was nothing from another world when it comes to annoying things. There was everything: from normal and current people whose parents are making every economic effort to bring their children there, up to persons whose parents were millionaires. For sure there was much fascism among the professors and high positions in the school. I was there some ten years.
When I entered there was almost no diversity. It was among the less racialized school. From the first moment, I remember that the boys did not see me as one of the others and, in a short time, I began to suffer harassment, as much from older students from other courses, as from students of my class. The insults were the typical “black shit”, “go back to your country”, and things about my physique.
From childhood I was timid thus normally I did not defend myself nor did I understand what they were referring to, why the color of my skin seemed to bother them or why they told me to go back to my country when I was already in it. But that was not the only racism that I suffered. It took me years to realize that the usual commentaries: “You would be beautiful with straight hair,” from girls of my class (all white),together with what it means for a non-white girl to grow in such a euro centric society, they ended up making me from tender age desire that I would have straight hair and so start straightening my hair with treatments and ironing. I perfectly remember once, when I was still at a tender age, two companions learnt that I like one boy in the class and they started to laugh aloud so that I would hear it. One of them said: “with those thick lips, if she kisses him she will fill him with slime.”
As I grew up, I began to understand many things which I normally let go unnoticed, like when they put up the fashion of wearing the Palestinian scarf (keffiyeh) and in my college they ended up prohibiting it. They told us that it was not an accessory to our school uniform, but as the years pass, my mother explained to me the meaning of the item and I understood it. The professors also used to make us fearful of transferring to other schools. They always told us that in government schools there are people from other countries and that they are basically criminals. I had a lady professor of history who was a typical Spanish rich and fascist. In class she made commentaries like: Nelson Mandela was an assassin, or that Franco was not really bad and only wanted what was best for the country.
On day, discussing about the bubonic plague of the middle ages, (also called the black plague), a girls said in between laughs: “But, was not the black plague at the time when the black people invaded us?” The Lady professor asked why ask such a question and she gave a typical answer: Africans are invading Spain. My classmates used to say such things knowing that I was listening.
Another year, a new professor of religion came in, an African of class, and I always had “to protect him” because he was a being of light. He was a very good person, but my classmates, in full adolescence, were monstrous. I recall that the “jesters” in my class sometimes made indiscrete commentaries and questions that he took as jokes but which to me caused much pain. It was a mixture of emotions: anger, pity, confusion…because I could not understand why they wanted to hurt the feeling of someone who has done them absolutely no wrong. In this epoch it was that I began to “wake up” and to get interested on racial issues, but I felt terribly alone and misunderstood. There I started to be conscious of the micro-racisms and bite my tongue, because I knew that I could count on no one in this matter.
In the fourth year of high school they placed a rather problematic boy in my class. He was older than any of us and was known as the typical “big bad guy”. His family knew the director and for that he was practically untouchable. He always got what he wanted. In my class we were only two “freaks” among the rest of the “guys”, and the boy decided that I would be his new victim. At the beginning of the year he gave me an “affectionate” nickname. He called me “the nigger”, and he and the other boys were all day joking with “yeah, nigger in da hood” and all other expressions that the whites adore. His form of relating with me was passive-aggressive, and all the “inoffensive” jokes and commentaries had much malice behind it, but I decided to ignore it so as not to create tension, because after all I was alone. It came to a point when I responded impolitely, and then the situation passed from “joke among competitors” to pure bullying. There was the moment when the boy asked if I would like to sleep with him, because “I have never been with a nigger”. I refused and from then on things changed. The moment came when my mother had to intervene and I told her that his conduct is fit to be denounced, but as usual, the professors did nothing and in my class they joked about it to molest me (www.esracismo.com. 28 Oct. 2019).
The Spanish film “Poniente” (West or Sunset) in 2002, dealt with the theme of racial and social discrimination. It is the story of a young Lady Teacher who lives in Madrid and decides to return to her native city, after the death of her father. In Almeria she lives with many immigrants who work in winter quarters.
Your commitment and your response.
In our world ruled by money and consumerism, one who in not productive or does not visibly contribute to society is marginalized. How do these criteria influence your everyday life, your community?
In your community life, do you feel better or more “holy” than your brothers? Do you need the sin of others to exalt yourself or underline your “personal perfection”?
In a society that practices marginalization (social, economic, ethnic, etc.), how do you respond to what you see around you? In your community, how is your disposition of welcome, patience and understanding with someone different from you?
In all parts God calls to correction, by all means he calls to penitence: he calls with gifts for the creature, he calls granting time of life, he calls through a reader of Sacred Scriptures, he calls by an expositor of his Word, he calls by his consoling mercy. Grant, O Lord, that we hear your voice, that we may experience the sweetness of your love, of your forgiveness and of your mercy (en. Ps. 102,16 paraphrase).
“How near is the mercy God to him who confesses himself a sinner! God is not far from the contrite of heart” (s. 112A,5).