We celebrated the feast of St. Matthew the apostle this past Wednesday, and the Gospel reading for that day was taken from the saint’s own Gospel, discussing Jesus’s meal with the tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees approached His disciples and asked them why their teacher ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus overheard this and said to them, “The well do not need a physician but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12-13). What exactly do these words mean? What about our notion of sacrifice as Catholics, where we willingly give things up in order to do penance and grow closer to God? Does Jesus not want this? Of course He does, but He is making a point to the Pharisees that He does not want their type of sacrifice, doing things just for the sake of rituals and abiding by the law without showing love of God and love of neighbor.
The Pharisees were known for only associating with those that were like themselves in observing the law and being seen as righteous, which is why they were opposed to eating with the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus, however, wishes to teach them and us that in order to really live out our calling as His followers and disciples, we need to be open to others who are different from us so that we can evangelize and plant the seed to bring them into the fold of the Church. Outwardly abiding by the law and their rituals of religion without the inward conversion of heart and mind to turn toward God and their neighbor in love was the type of sacrifice that Jesus was warning against. It is a false form of sacrifice. Instead, Jesus prefers mercy, which turns us toward our neighbor so that we can see their needs, particularly the spiritual ones, and help guide them on the right path toward heaven. He wants this done in conjunction with the right type of sacrifice, those things done for love of Him and not just to be seen by others or to say we abide by a certain set of laws.
As Catholics, this provides a point of reflection for us and an opportunity to look at how we live out our faith. Do we look down on others who are not like us and only outwardly abide by Catholic teachings and precepts while inwardly shunning our neighbor and God? Or do we truly tend to our spiritual life and make an effort to evangelize others and teach them the ways of Christ and His Church? It is important that we don’t become like the Pharisees but rather like Christ, Who reached out to those who expressed faith in Him in order that they might repent of their sins and begin to follow Him. We must also love God in truth and not just as an outward expression to appear pious to others. Spending time in prayer and spiritual reading will help this relationship with Him to grow and will also grow our desire to do things out of love for Him. Thus, we will truly begin to live out Christ’s call for mercy coupled with the correct form of sacrifice.