He Ate with Tax Collectors and Sinners

[Homily.  First Friday. July 1, 2022]

Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. 

But, he said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  On this First Friday, this is the Good News we focus on.  What is in Jesus’ heart is not to glory in the company of the self-righteous and reputable, in those who say, “Thank God I am not like the rest of men,” but to approach those who say, “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner” (cf. Lk 18:1-14)  and show them the heart of a compassionate Father. 

The Father and His Lost Son

As he did when he told the parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son (cf. Lk 15:11-32).  The compassionate Father is he who is saddened by the loss of his son, who wonders whether giving in to his son’s demand for his inheritance was right, who despite the pain of his son’s departure to squander his birthright hoped for the best for him, who over time worried that the worst had happened to him, yet waited and waited and waited in the hope that his son would return.  Finally, he did.  While starving in misery, he thought he would return to his father’s house just to be treated as any of his father’s hired servants who had more than enough to eat.  But when his father recognizes him coming over a hillside in the distance, he gets up, runs to him, embraces him, hears nothing of his son’s protestations of having sinned, being sorry, and wanting only to be a hireling, but bids his servants to bring out the finest robe for him, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  He calls for a celebration, for his son had been lost, but was not found, his son had been dead but now alive.  Such was the heart of the Father as portrayed by Jesus.

Jesus and the Lost Sheep

Jesus’ own heart beat with the heart of his Father.  “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” he said.  He did not come to be in the company of those who were ritually clean, who were legally compliant, who kept company with politically correct friends, projected the politically acceptable slogans and colors, who had never struggled against the power of sin and evil in one’s life, until one day they did, and fell.  Jesus came to go after the lost, the lonely, those defeated by the hard knocks life, those who in weakness, confusion or arrogance had denied God and then sinned, and whose confused and despairing hearts his heart cared about.  His heart was the heart of the Good Shepherd who “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one till he finds it.  And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.”  And then he tells his neighbors, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep!”  “In just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance” (cf Lk 15:3-7).

God Leads His Scattered Sheep Home

“I did not come to call the righteous but sinners!” (Mt. 9:13b).  This is in the heart of the good shepherd.  In the situation described by the prophet Ezekiel after the Babylonian exile, when the sinful people of God had been scattered and lost in foreign lands because their erstwhile kings and political leaders, their false shepherds, had failed to properly care for them, had even misled them to worship false gods, the Lord, exasperated at the false shepherds, says, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.  I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark.  I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from the foreign lands;  I will bring them back to their own country and pasture them upon the mountains of Israel…  I myself will pasture my sheep;  I myself will give them rest … The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the arrogant I will destroy, shepherding them rightly” (cf. Ez 34:11-16).  This Shepherd’s heart of the Father was the heart of Jesus, the good shepherd, who when looking at his sheep said, “All [false shepherds] who came before me are thieves and robbers, but [my] sheep did not listen to them…. I came so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.  I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.   … I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father, and I will lay down my life for my sheep.  … This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own…” (cf. Jn 10:1018)

The Paschal Lamb on the Cross

So, on this Good Friday, understanding the heart of the shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, who leads the scattered sheep home, and is willing to lay down his life for his sheep, we are brought back to the image of Jesus on the Cross.  He has enjoyed many fellowship meals with sinners and tax collectors, with adulterers and lying politicians; even on the cross, he is mindful of them.  He is mindful of the many times we have given in to temptation, done the wrong we repeatedly told ourselves we would no longer do.  His paschal fellowship meal is celebrated not with the self-righteous but with confessed sinners to whom he says, “This is my Body given up for you.”  “This is my blood poured out for you.”  On his Cross, Jesus is the Paschal Lamb offered to the Father for you. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).

Understanding His Heart, To Love

Perhaps in the light of today’s Gospel, it is time as sinners to seek out the company of the Lord. To understand his heart.  For did he not say, “I will be with you always ” – even when you are in sin?   I will be with you not to keep you in sin, but to affirm you in freedom and autonomy, to help you to discover the truth, to lead you home, and to embrace you.  Understanding this, his silent call to repentance is not a belittling rebuke, but an invitation to encounter him in the company of sinners.  And understanding his heart, to respond in love.  

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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