“Learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9:13

People, like the self-righteous Scribes and the Pharisees, were opposed to Jesus’ message of universal love which overflowed to sinners and misfits and to those who disregarded the law.

In today’s gospel, Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him, and even dined at Matthew’s table along with “many tax collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees saw this and complained to Jesus’ disciples, “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Upon hearing this, the Lord said to them, “learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The Old Testament prophet Hosea, lived and preached a merciful message. Although his wife had left him and had engaged in loose living, Hosea forgave her and took her back without criticism. It is from the book of Hosea (chapter 6:6) that the Lord quoted the words in today’s gospel to oppose the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisees who were critical of him for dining at the house of Matthew, the tax collector, and for fraternizing with other sinners.

The Pharisees like most self-righteous people, thought they were perfect because they followed all the rules. You could say that they were walking rules. They kept all the commandments and observed all the laws of the Old Testament, but they had hard hearts and were given to judging others harshly who were not like them.

The Lord tells a parable about a Pharisee and a Publican who went into the temple to pray. The Pharisee praised himself for not being like the Publican who did not observe all the commandments. The Lord, however, has mercy on the Publican and He praised him because of his humble prayer: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is the Publican, not the Pharisee, who leaves the temple justified, says the Lord.

Jesus calls everyone to follow him. He does not call saints or holy people because all have sinned. Those who follow him, like Matthew, the tax collector, can become saints; they can lead holy lives if they are willing to turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel. They don’t have to be perfect, but they can be perfected by following Christ’s example.

This is the meaning of holiness.

Fr. Hugh Duffy

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