(Ordinary Time – Cycle A)
This Sunday’s biblical readings present the foundation of what we could call “the biblical religion”. It deals above all with an experience of faith that is found in Abraham, its best model, who “never questioned or doubted God’s promise”; rather he relied totally in God with infinite trust (second reading). Another fundamental data that the Scripture offers us is that this faith should be expressed necessarily in love (Gal 5,6). The prophets of Israel, in fact, continually condemned a religion of cult that ignored the great demands of mercy and of justice (first reading). In total syntony with the ancient prophets, Jesus also condemned continually the legalism and sectarian narrow-mindedness, living and announcing a religious experience based on merciful, gratuitous and saving love (gospel).
The first reading (Hos 6,3-6) is taken from the Prophet Hosea, the great prophet of love and fidelity. Verse 3 quotes words said by the people: “Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming; he will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” They exhort each other to know the Lord. They seem to be words of sincere conversion. However, the prophet unmasks the insincerity of the discourse. More than conversion, it is reckoning, presumptuous security, illusion of being able to manipulate God. For them, God is predictable, like an automatic object that man can operate. And so they believe that they can control the mechanism of reconciliation with God through the sacrifices and the exact ritual of the sanctuaries.
In vv. 4-6, the prophet makes us hear God’s response. His first words seem to reveal a moment of indecision: “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah?” (v. 4a) Should God yield up or resist before the manipulative intention of the people through sacred ritual? Then, repeating and twisting the same images used by the people, God reveals the falsity and inconsistency of the religious experience of Israel: “Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” (v. 4b) Their religion is barren like a cloud that does not bring rain, passing like the morning dew. The strong word of the prophets opposes their empty religious rituals. Proclaiming God’s will to a people who do not convert themselves, they inevitably announced death to them (v. 5a). Yes, the Lord will come early like the dawn, but to judge (v. 5).
The text concludes with an immortal phrase: “For it is love (hésed) that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” (v. 6) The term hésed is very rich. It indicates the faithful and gratuitous love that is at the foundation of the covenant and that is expressed in mercy and justice. “Knowledge of God” is a phrase that expresses the totality of the biblical faith, founded on the experience of God’s gratuitous love and expressed in a behaviour that is in accordance with his will. In the Bible the right relationship of man with God does not happen through the mediation of a religious rite separated from life, but through love and knowledge of God. The prophets will not get tired of repeating that faith cannot be separated from life, nor cult from history.
The second reading (Rom 4,18-25) forms part of Paul’s great eulogy to Abraham in Chapter 4 of the Letters to the Romans. In order to celebrate the splendour of the faith of the Patriarch, who “did not grow weak in faith” before human deeds that seemed to refute God’s promise (v. 19), he recalls a phrase from Gn 15,6: “Abraham put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” (cf. Rom 4,22). The verb “credit” or “consider” belonged to the ritual language and with it the offering was regarded as valid, presented according to all the liturgical prescriptions. The sacrifice of Abraham, perfect and pleasing to God, is not so much a holocaust of animal or an incense offering, but his trust in the Lord and in his promises. Through his faith, he finds justice, that is, he is placed in the right relationship with a God who “restores the dead to life and calls into being those things which had not been” (Rom 4,17). The figure of Abraham is exemplary and valid for those who imitate him, believing in God “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4,24).
The gospel (Mt 9,9-13) narrates first of all the call of Matthew, who was a “tax collector” and whom Mark and Luke call Levi (Mk 2,14; Lk 5,27). The tax collectors of the Roman empire, the publicans, were persons detested by the people and the religious leaders, since they see them as a visible sign of the imperialist oppression of Rome and of the political and religious humiliation to which Israel was subjected. However, Jesus calls one of them in order to form part of the group of his disciples. And he does not only call him, but he goes to his house to eat, doing an act that is scandalous to the eyes of the Pharisees.
While Jesus was in Matthew’s house, “many tax collectors and those known as sinners came to join Jesus and his disciples at dinner” (v. 10). Only one table where there are no divisions, sign of the Kingdom announced by Jesus, founded on mercy and fraternity. On seeing this, the Pharisees were scandalized since they scrupulously avoided every type of defiling contact with this kind of persons, considered unworthy of God’s pardon (v. 11). Jesus, however, with a sovereign freedom breaks all the taboo of separation that is based on the biblical prescriptions related to the purity of the people of God.
The response of Jesus to the Pharisees is composed of three symmetrical phrases that converge on the exaltation of a religious experience founded on love and mercy:
(a) A proverb probably known in the place: “People who are in good health do not need a doctor; sick people do.” Those who are contemptible in the eyes of everybody are for Jesus the privileged object of God’s love and care. That is why Jesus welcomes sinners, as a doctor, who is preoccupied with the sick, is doing.
(b) A biblical quotation (Hos 6,6): “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.’” The phrase was the object of debates in the Jewish schools of the time. Jesus invites the Pharisees to deepen on the biblical meaning of the verse from Hosea to be able to understand his action, totally opposed to theirs. The word “mercy”, in Greek: eleos, translates the Hebrew term hésed, which recalls the gratuitous, merciful and faithful love that God has for his people and which the people should live as response to their covenant with God. The act of Jesus, in open contrast to the Pharisees, corresponds to the will of God who shows his preference for mercy and saving love, more than for the scrupulous and rigid exercise of the prescriptions that guide the ritual of purity.
(c) A Christological declaration. Jesus explains in a short synthesis the meaning of his mission: “I have come to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners.” The historical mission of Jesus, who calls men and women to follow him and invites them to the banquet of his Kingdom, is placed in the perspective of saving mercy in favour of sinners. In Jesus the gratuitous and saving love of God for all men and women, without distinction or exclusion, is manifested in a sublime manner. A love that goes beyond the law and sectarianism. A love that God credits as justice, that is, as a perfect religious and liturgical act.