In every human community, there are people who ask loaded questions or make verbal side-swipes. This is part of the dysfunctional communication of the negative critic. It generally results in pain or embarrassment for the person indirectly targeted as well as diminishment of the critic. A reflective response to a side-swipe can be an effective way of disarming a critic and of restoring dignity to the situation. Jesus had it down to a fine art, as today’s gospel demonstrates. He may not have won his critics over, but he probably made them reflect on their behaviour and think twice before they tried it again. The wisdom of his response remains for those who assemble for a meal ‘in the house’.
The juxtaposition of meal and house in the gospel narrative invites us to reflect on the eucharistic gatherings in the early house churches. The company is not so different from ours when we gather for Eucharist. Jesus is present. His close followers are there with all their faults and failings, some more ready to acknowledge their shortcomings than others. There are those on the edge, a little afraid to declare themselves because of their anomalous life situations or occupations that don’t quite fit the accepted mores. Finally, the ‘righteous’ (used ironically in this instance) take their place and feel free to pronounce judgment on ‘unacceptable’ membership and unconventional leadership alike.
It is very easy to condemn. It is not so easy to value difference and to see wisdom in a compassionate embrace of all God’s people. Jesus zeros in on his sophisticated and well educated critics, telling them to go and learn the meaning of the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I desire mercy rather than sacrifice.’
Custodians of the Jewish tradition may not have appreciated such a directive. To learn, they must simply attend to what they see before them. Jesus has actually shown them the meaning of mercy in action. He has invited one of society’s social pariahs, a customs official named Matthew, to ‘follow’ him.
Matthew responds without hesitation. He leaves an occupation that upholds the infrastructure of the Roman Empire for a life on the road in the service of God’s empire. The toll collected on transported goods was crippling for peasant farmers and others taking their produce to market. The system was skewed. Jesus’ invitation and Matthew’s response deal a mini systemic blow to the empire. Every little counts and the witness of one small step can reverberate through the ages and give courage to those who would seek to advance God’s way of doing mercy in our world.