[Homily. First Friday. Live-streamed Mass. July 2, 2021. Based on Matthew 9:9-13 and Hos. 6:6]
Our Gospel today begins with a brief portrayal of Jesus’ compelling effect on people. Matthew was a tax collector. As such he was in the service of Rome, the foreign imperial force occupying and ruling Palestine in the time of Jesus. Being a tax collector, he knew how to collect money not only for the Roman empire but for himself. So he probably had more money than most. Paid by Rome and rewarded by his own corruption, he was considered a sinner. Most Jews despised him.
Jesus approached him, sinner though he was, while working in his customs post. “Follow me,” Jesus said. Matthew, whose job was to follow money and make money, gets up, leaves his job, and follows Jesus. It is quite remarkable. He must have been overwhelmed by this famous healer and preacher looking into his eye and moving his heart. He didn’t deserve Jesus’ attention, much less this call. So how could he not respond? Even his response was less of reason and more of heart. The Gospels according to St. Mark and St. Luke[i] record the same incident using Mathew’s original name, Levi. Our Gospel passage stresses the new identity Matthew[ii] acquires in leaving all to follow Jesus.
Well, he left all eventually. The next few lines of the Gospel speak of a house and of a banquet in the house. The house evidently still belongs to Matthew, and it is his banquet. Those he has invited are his friends of dubious repute: colleagues in tax collection, hired workers in the Roman bureaucracy, traders, merchants, hustlers, scammers and thieves – all exchanging stories of how to best exploit a business opportunity or take advantage of a fool for easy money. This mundane crowd, which the pious Jew self-righteously despised, felt at home in Matthew’s house, enjoying his food and drink. He was after all one of them. But this day they had come looking forward to meet the celebrity preacher who had succeeded in convincing Matthew to follow him. Jesus is present; he mixes in nicely with the company. He is there, eating, smiling, drinking, laughing and conversing with them, perhaps interjecting between banter and wit, a statement like, “Seek first the Kingdom of God!” or “You cannot serve God and mammon!” The table fellowship is pleasant.
But looking on, the Pharisees are scandalized. This Jesus is supposed to be a prophet, a holy man, one who stands and speaks for God; how can he be mingling with these known sinners? Jesus was defiling himself in mixing with these dealers in dirty money; he was breaking with the “traditions of the elders”[iii]. But Jesus’ rebuke would have been: Why do you break the commandments of God, “to love your neighbor as yourself, to love above all things your compassionate God” just in order to preserve your traditions? Why do you not acknowledge the reign of your loving Father? You are so wrapped in in your own self-righteousness that you fail to perceive the will of your Father for these people in his Son. “Those who are well do not need a physician,” Jesus says, “but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[iv] I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (13).
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is multi-layered. The scriptural passage he quoted is from the Prophet Hosea: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God, not holocausts” (Hos 6:6). Hosea is speaking prophetically for God: More than the traditional sacrifice of animals, it is love that I desire; more important than the burnt offerings you bring me, I desire that you know me, your God, and so know my will. More than your traditions where you worry about your external ritual purity, what I desire is that you know me interiorly, that you know my love for you, and in the purity of your hearts that you love me and respond to my love in deeds of love. It is a remarkable passage. We are the creatures dependent on God for our being. We are like the grass of the field, here today, gone tomorrow. Like the wildflowers of the field, arrayed like Solomon in all his glory today, wilted tomorrow. Active today, sick tomorrow. Powerful today, helpless tomorrow. President of the country today, ashes tomorrow. It is we who in our insignificance should be begging to be loved by God, begging that God find something in us even worthy of his attention. So that our lives not be vacuous. But in Hosea it is the opposite. It is God telling us, not without a raw vulnerability: You should really get to know me. I do not need all the things you do – all those sacrifices and burnt offerings – that distract you from really knowing me. What I desire is your love.
As he loves us, what he desires is our love. How many of us have really given it to him?
You know how it is when you love, and it is not requited. When you love and it is not responded to. When you love, and it is not noticed, or worse, ignored. Or when you yearn for love forever and through manifest covenants, understandings, commitments, expect love forever – from a beloved, a spouse, a brother, a sister, a friend – but before “forever” comes, in a span of time that is always too soon, love is betrayed. Or just dies. And further love denied. It is quite painful. One can be defeated by that pain and walk away from love. But it is that pain that signals the endurance of love, still wishing to be known, still wishing to be accepted. This is the way of God’s love. Know me, love me, the vulnerable Lover pleas.
With Jesus telling us to understand the meaning of the passage from Hosea, today’s Gospel message to know God and to love God is associated with the powerful imagery in the Book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea’s marriage to Gomer is painfully dysfunctional. He has married a harlot, a prostitute, a wife who despite her husband’s love and providence goes to other men, consorts with them, has sex with them, and attributes her husband’s providence for her to her lovers. His wounded love for her, however, remains steadfast, no matter how pained, even as he must extend his care for her illegitimate children. He continues to love her, to fight for her, until she returns to him. The marriage of Hosea is a symbol of the pained relationship of Yahweh to his people. The covenanted relationship between God and his people is compared to the marriage of Hosea and Gomer. God loves his people, takes his people as his spouse in marriage, provides her with all she needs, desiring her love. But his wife is unfaithful, consorts with other men, sleeps with other gods, defiles herself with the fertility rites of the Baals, has children by them, attributes all the gifts and support he provides her to the Baals. Yet he continues to love her. In this context, God is telling us: despite your infidelity, you must know how much I still love you, how much I still want you to know me loving you. How much I want you to love me. Even if you are tax collectors and sinners. Even if you are Pharisees who are scandalized in the way I love you.
In the 11th chapter of Hosea the tenderness and fidelity of God’s love for Israel or Ephraim – for us – shifts to an image a father loving his wayward child:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the farther they went from me,
sacrificing to the Baals
and burning incense to idols.
Yet, it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks.
they did not know that I was their healer. (Hos. 11:1-4)
How could I give you up, O Ephraim,
Or deliver you up , O Israel?
How could I treat you as Admah
Or make you like Zebolim?
My heart is overwhelmed,
My pity is stirred.
I will not give way to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you. (11:8-9)
On this First Friday, we ponder the heart of this vulnerable Lover, God, wanting to be known, wanting to be loved. His love is faithful, despite our harlotry. His love is tender, for he has raised us even as we were yet children. His love does not forget: how he raised us up as infants to his cheeks. His love is forgiving, for He is God, not man, the Holy One present among us. His love is forever.
He approaches us today and says, “Follow me.”
[i] Mk 2:14-17; Luke 5: 27-32
[ii] The meaning of “Matthew” is “gift of Jehovah” or “gift of God.”
[iii] cf. Matthew 15:1-20. The Pharisees and scribes asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?…” (2).
[iv] Hosea 6:6. Hesed is translated as love, mercy, compassion, loyal adherence to the covenant partner