Go and learn
the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy,
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.
In his confrontation with the Pharisees Jesus
quoted the Prophet Hosea, who was never shy of confrontation; and we should
consider the setting in which Saint Matthew has placed this ancient formula.
First we notice it’s in the house of Saint
Matthew where Jesus and his disciples have repaired for dinner. In the gospels
a meal always reminds us of heaven. If we’re able to sit down at table and eat
without quarreling or contention we’re halfway there!
The celebration of a meal
begins with the carnal fact that the human being needs to eat;
it’s an animal activity. But the meal is also a human activity as we share food
equally among us without discrimination or preference, and as we enjoy one
another’s company. The momentum from animal feeding to human sharing directs us
toward heavenly delight. In the comfort and ease of shared gustatory pleasure
and enlightening conversation we sense the company of the saints.
Secondly, we notice the pleasant banquet is invaded
by quarrelsome Pharisees. They see the religious company of Jesus and his
disciples sitting down with certain unsavory characters and they don’t like the
leveling effects of the meal. The sacred and profane should never mix; the
latter will render the former unclean.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” sounds like a thunderclap in this stormy
setting. This is not distant thunder; this one is right overhead, the kind
where we see the flash and hear the boom instantaneously. It shakes the house
and trembles the bones.
Pope Francis’ call
for mercy has sounded like a thunderclap throughout the Church and into the
secular world of economics, politics and war. He would put mercy ahead of the
rules and regulations and SOPs that govern our behavior like so many
overbearing Pharisees. The first question in any difficult situation is, “What
would Mercy do?”
I should ask myself not, “What’s the least I can
do?” but, “What should I do?”
The rule of law is a good thing; it’s far
better than chaos. But law is a human creation; it expresses the preferences
and desires of those who can make and enforce the law. It is not necessarily
just, fair or reasonable. A democratic society flatters itself by thinking, “We
have formulated these laws to suit the needs of all the people.” But the instrument
is never perfect and that flattery cannot hear the cries of those who suffer its
Jesus’ demand must always be a goad and
gadfly, urging us to examine and reexamine our beliefs, attitudes and behavior.
Good enough is not good enough.