BEING IDENTIFIED WITH SINNERS AND THE SICK
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ HEB 4:12-16; PS 19:8-10, 15; MK 2:13-17 ]
The gospel today presents to us the call and conversion of Matthew. We read that he was doing his business at the customs house as usual when the Lord called him to be His disciple.
The response of Matthew was immediate. It was instant because it was the Lord who called. When God commands, we are expected to obey straightaway. Only God’s command requires an immediate response. Obedience is the appropriate response to the word of God.
But Matthew least expected Jesus to call him because he was totally unworthy of being a disciple of Jesus. He knew very well that tax collectors were much hated and despised by the Jews for three reasons. Firstly, they were perceived as traitors of the Jews as they worked for the Roman conquerors. Secondly, the taxes collected were used to support the Roman empire and some of them were even used to finance the pagan religions and temples. Thirdly, the tax collectors often overcharged the merchants as they needed to make a commission for themselves from the taxes collected. It was not surprising that the Jews regarded the tax collectors as their worst enemies and most of all, unscrupulous people. Such people did not deserve a place in the kingdom of God.
Indeed, the call of Matthew was simply unthinkable and marvelous. No rabbi or religious leader would ever think of calling someone like Matthew to be his disciple. Yet Jesus did. Jesus could see the potential in every human person. In His eyes no one is lost or beyond redemption. Jesus sought to reach out especially to the marginalized, the sinners, the lost and the wounded. Jesus saw the goodness in each sinner and broken person.
As Christians, we too are called to reach out especially to the poor, which includes all who are spiritually poor, materially poor and emotionally poor. There are many who are spiritually empty in life. Although rich and successful in the corporate world, they lack meaning and purpose. Their lives are in a mess and they live in loneliness, fear and anxiety. They seek true meaning and purpose in life but do not know where to find it. Some of them just bury themselves either in their career and business, or indulge themselves in the pleasures of the world. Yet, deep within them, there is a vacuum. Others are materially poor or physically not well. They too seek help, as in the time of Jesus. They turned to the Lord for healing, whether of their sight, hearing or mobility. Today, there are many people who are carrying upon themselves all kinds of affliction. They are mentally sick or physically struck down with illnesses but unable to afford the medical bills. There are those who are physically or mentally disadvantaged, the abandoned and underprivileged in society. Finally, we have so many elderly people today who feel so alone at home because their children have moved out of the house or do not have time for them. Some of them are immobile and so are imprisoned within the four walls of their homes. Every day, they wake up not knowing what to do with their time and there is no one to talk to. In such situations, we can appreciate how much they wish they could die as there is no meaning and purpose in life for them.
What can we do to help such people? In the first place, we need to be identified with them. Identification with sinners, the marginalized and the weak is the presupposition for us wanting to reach out to them. If Jesus was a compassionate person, full of empathy for the weak and the suffering, it was because He carried within Himself our pain, suffering and sorrows in His body. He suffered with us in every way except that He was without sin. The author of the letter to the Hebrews captures the compassion of Jesus succinctly when he wrote, “For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.” Truly, because Jesus was truly a man although He was God, He could identify with every one of us in our sickness, hunger and loneliness. It is for this reason, the author says, “Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.” Jesus is the throne of grace to which we can turn to for help and for mercy since He understands more than anyone else our woes. We too cannot feel for the poor and for sinners unless we are identified with them.
It is important therefore that we learn to reach out to such people and be with them, to hear them out. If we just sit in our office, we can never feel with the sufferings of the ordinary man. That is why politicians must go on “walkabouts” in their constituency or hear petitions during the weekly “meet the people” session so that they can hear for themselves personally the difficulties their constituents are going through. It is the same for priests as well. Unless, he visits his people, conducts retreats, hears confession, do counselling, he will not understand the struggles of his parishioners. Only when we hear these stories first-hand, or when we journey with those who are broken, wounded and disheartened, can we then feel with them and for them. Empathy is but the first step in the work of charity and compassion.
Invariably, those of us who are not in touch with such people tend to be judgmental. When we are rich and healthy, we do not understand the sufferings and anxieties of the poor and the sick. Some of us are not patient with our elderly because they are slow and forgetful; one day we too will become old, and then we will find ourselves losing our faculties. If we are heartless, it is because we live in our own world. The approach of Jesus was not one of condemnation but understanding and sympathy. But more than that, Jesus actively sought to offer His friendship and assistance as He did to Levi.
We need to step out of our world and enter into the world of the poor, the suffering and the sinners. That was what Jesus did. He had no office. His office was in the fields, in the homes, in the streets. He was always with the ordinary and poor people. He did not live in a palace. He had no place to lay His head. He was with the fishermen in the boat and with the sinners in their houses. Jesus took every opportunity to reach out. He did not wait for them to come to Him. Instead, He took the initiative to call sinners and reach out to the sick, the blind and the lame. Jesus did not shun the tax-collectors but He took the occasion to join them, be one with them, feel with them and reach out to them as friends.
If we seek them out then those who are converted in turn will bring their friends to the Lord as well. This was the case with Levi. He wanted to celebrate his conversion and his new life. So, he invited his friends to meet the Lord. Whenever we have a beautiful encounter with God or a new life, we want to celebrate, as in a wedding, or when we find new happiness. As we reach out to the suffering, the poor and those who have turned away from God, coming to them as sincere friends, not as a judge and never in a condescending way, we too will win them over by our empathy and compassion. This was the way of our Lord and this should also be the path we take as well. Like Jesus, “who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin”, we too who are tempted like them, but have overcome sin, must show them the way out of their misery, suffering and the snares that entrap them.
We can do this only if we ourselves are rooted in the Word of God. To come to Jesus for inspiration and enlightenment, we need to let the Word of God inspire us, as the author to Hebrews invites us. “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.” Only the Word of God can purify us in the way we reach out to the suffering and the needy. As workers of Christ, we too need to purify our motives in serving Him and His people. Only the Word of God can touch our emotions and make us feel with the suffering.
In the final analysis, let us cling on to Jesus as the author encourages us. Our good works must be founded on Christ and not on our own strength. “Since in Jesus, the Son of God, we have the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven, we must never let go of the faith that we have professed.” Only faith in Jesus would help us to overcome every trial and challenge as we reach out to those who are in need. There are many problems we cannot resolve, but if we bring to Jesus the compassionate high priest, He will help us because as the throne of grace and mercy, He will somehow give us the grace and means to accomplish His will and do what He did when He was on earth.
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.