SCRIPTURE READINGS: [GN 23:1-4. 19:24:1-8. 62-67; PS 106:1-5; MT 9:9-13]
In the first reading, we have the story of Abraham looking for a wife for his son, Isaac. It was all important for Abraham that the wife chosen for Isaac be from his own clan. He entrusted his servant to ensure that this would happen. “Abraham said to the eldest servant of his household, the steward of all his property, ‘Place your hand under my thigh, I would have you swear by the Lord God of heaven and God of earth, that you will not choose a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. Instead, go to my own land and my own kinsfolk to choose a wife for my son Isaac.'”
Why was it necessary that the future wife of his son must be from his own tribe? This was to ensure the continuity of the covenant that Abraham had made with God. Marrying someone outside of the clan, and worse still from another tribe whose faith they did not share, would lead to dilution of their faith and covenant with Yahweh. So to protect the faith and their covenantal relationship with God, Abraham had to make sure that Isaac took a wife from among his own people. This tendency to protect one’s faith and culture was deeply ingrained in the Israelites throughout their history because they saw themselves as a chosen race, the People of God, whilst the rest were not. So they forbade, or at least frowned upon, inter-faith marriages and even marriages with those not of Jewish descent. This fear of losing one’s faith and culture continued in the history of civilization. This explains why many religions, races and tribes do not allow inter-marriages. Some religions do not permit their followers to marry people of other faiths for fear that they will lose their faith or have their faith confused and weakened as a result of the marriage.
This principle of exclusion extends also to how some religions treat sinners within their community. Those who break the laws or do not observe the rituals of their religions are condemned, marginalized and sometimes excommunicated. In the gospel, we can understand why the Pharisees or the “Separated Ones” who sought to live a life of holiness would not mix with sinners for fear of being contaminated and influenced by them. So, having fellowship with sinners was a taboo. It would even make them ritually unclean to offer worship and sacrifices. Thus, when the Pharisees saw Jesus at table with a number of tax collectors and sinners, they were scandalized and asked His disciples, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” As far as the Pharisees were concerned, good and righteous people should stay away from sinners so that they would remain pure and holy.
But this intention of separation, which was meant to protect the purity of their faith and culture, ended in their alienation of sinners. They began to look down on sinners, despised them and condemned them. By condemning the sinners, they only isolated them further and drove them to remain outside the community. As a result, they were led to further sin, since they were excluded from worship and the community. Indeed, to exclude sinners from our community simply because they failed to live up to their discipleship causes more harm than good. They feel hurt and resentful. The truth is that if sinners are living a life of dishonesty, selfishness and self-centeredness, it is because they do not know the truth. They are hurt, unenlightened and confused. They are more to be pitied than to be blamed. That is why Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.”
Unfortunately, that is how so-called good and holy people treat sinners, as if they themselves are without sin. We exclude those who are homosexual, divorced or ex-prisoners, drug offenders, uneducated and uncouth from our community. We will not allow them, even if they have repented of their past, to hold leadership positions in the community, or sometimes even to join ministries in the Church. We keep them at a distance, gossip about them and judge them as bad Catholics. We condemn them and make them feel as if they are second-class citizens. We tell our children and our friends to stay away from them because they are bad company. We don’t give them a second chance. Once a sinner or a criminal, even if the person has changed, he or she is, in our minds, always a condemned sinner and incorrigible criminal.
Hence, Jesus invites us to learn the true meaning of holiness, which is mercy. He said, “Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.” Mercy is undeserved love. Only mercy can change the lives of others. What sinners need most is our mercy, understanding, empathy, forgiveness and encouragement; not judgment and condemnation. What they need most is our acceptance of them as they are. Unless we reach out to them and be with them, we will not be able to understand their struggles in living an authentic life, be they of same-sex orientation, divorced or ex-offenders. By identifying with them in their sinfulness, we will learn mercy and compassion.
If we really want to help sinners, we need to reach out to them in sincerity and in love. This was what Jesus did. He brought them into fellowship with Him. He did not insist, like the Pharisees, that they change their lives, repent and convert before they could be in fellowship with Him. Rather, Jesus went among them, spoke to them and invited them to have a meal with Him. God does not want us to be converted out of fear or out of obligation or merely observe blind obedience to the rules and laws. Such conversion will not last long and at any rate, it is not a real conversion. Rather, Jesus invited them to have a meal with Him so that they could get close to Him, listen to His words of wisdom, share in His love, enjoy His company and feel loved and accepted by Him.
Conversion will follow when they know that Jesus is their friend; not their judge. Conversion that springs from love will last. That is why, instead of condemning sinners, we must bring them to Jesus. Regardless who they are, those who have left the Church because they felt marginalized by some Catholics or even priests, those who are living in irregular relationships, those who had a colourful past, should be brought to Jesus, encounter His love and mercy before we can even speak of conversion. Our task is not to tell people what to do or what not to do, but to tell them about Jesus and bring them into fellowship with Him.
Once they are in fellowship with the Lord, it will be the Lord who will open their hearts to welcome the Good News. When they love Jesus, they will also love the Word of God. When they love Jesus, they will want to live His way of life. Only then will they begin to understand and accept the wisdom of the Word of God and the teachings of the Church in helping them to live an authentic life of love and truth. In the final analysis, conversion, precisely, is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely instruments of God’s love and mercy. We must be courageous like Jesus to reach out to them instead of isolating them.
What about the dangers of being influenced wrongly by sinners? The danger remains. This is why the scriptures advise us not to have fellowship with sinners. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.” (Ps 1:1) Instead, we should mix with the right company because birds of a feather flock together. “I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts.” (Ps 119:63) “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” (Prov 13:20) St Paul himself advised the Christians, “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.” (1 Cor 5:9-11) So what do we make of this? Is it contrary to what the Lord is teaching us, to go out and mix with the sinners?
The truth is that we can only reach out to sinners when we are healthy and strong! If we are weak and we mix with them, we will be too weak to resist the temptations. Instead of helping them, we fall into the same temptations that they could not overcome. So before we can help others, we must first strengthen our own faith. Jesus made it clear that when He ate with sinners, He was the One influencing them and not they influencing Him! He called Levi and transformed his enemy into His friend and apostle. He came to heal the sick because He is the healthy man, like a doctor attending to sick patients. So before we dare to venture out to save sinners, let us first save ourselves. We must first become disciples before we can become missionaries of Christ.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.