Homily On (Matthew 9:9-13)
Once there was a very holy abbot called Anastasius. In fact, he was considered a saint by his fellow desert monks. One day when a monk by the name of James sinned and was told to leave the community. Anastasius got up and walked out with him, saying: “I to am a sinner.” James however, did not reform. Years later he came to visit Anastasius as he was saying his evening prayer.
“Don’t worry,” Anastasius replied, “ My rule is to receive you with hospitality.”
And he gave him food and lodging for the night. Anastasius had an old copy of the Bible which was worth quit a bit of money. Seeing the book, James took it with him when he was leaving the next morning. When Anastasius realized that he had stolen the book, he did not follow him. Fearing that he might only make him add the sin of perjury to that of theft, James went to a nearby merchant to sell the book, asking a high price.
“Give me the book for a little while so that I can find out whether it’s worth that much,” the merchant said.
He took it to Anastasius. Anastasius took one look at it and said. “Yes this is a splendid book. In fact it’s worth much more.” The buyer came back and told the thief what Anastasius had said.
Stunned he asked, “ Was that all he said? Did he make no other remarks?”
“No,” said the merchant, “he did not say another word.”
On hearing this James was deeply moved, and said, “I have changed my mind. I don’t want to sell the book after all.” And he hastened back to Anastasius and, with tears in his eyes, gave him back the book and begged for his forgiveness. Anastasius received him with the same kindness as before.
He simply said, “ I forgive you. Keep the book. Read a little from it each day, and pray to Christ who received sinners like us, and brought them back to Gods love and friendship. Now go in peace.
His fellow monks were surprised to see him wasting his time on someone like James, but he said, “Tell me, if your robe is torn, will you throw it away?” And they replied, “No, we will mend it and put it back on.” Then he said, “If you take such care of your robe, will not God be merciful to one who bears his image?”
The kindness of Anastasius paid off. James changed his life. He returned to the life of a monk and became known for his goodness and holiness.
In the Gospel today, the Pharisees despised sinners, but Jesus befriended sinners. It was not a question of a few kind words, or a gesture or two, on his part. He associated with sinners. He shared their food and drink. He did not just tolerate them. He welcomed them. In his presence they felt accepted and loved just as they were. It is not surprising then that ,many of them heard his message and changed their lives. Matthew is an example of this.
Jesus’ attitude to sinners was one of kindness and persuasion rather than condemnation and denunciation. He did not wait for sinners to repent before becoming their friend. No, he befriended them in their sinfulness. This is what scandalized the religious authorities: that he associated with sinners and rejoiced in their company while they were still sinners. Just as today some people see compassion for the criminal as a betrayal of the victim, so the Pharisees saw Jesus’ compassion for the sinner as a betrayal of the virtuous.
Jesus defense was very strait forward, he said he went where the need was greatest. In associating with sinners he was not condoning their situation, rather, he was trying to show them a new life. But he could not do this without associating with them and being sympathetic towards them. You never improve people by shunning them. In acting the way he did, Jesus revealed the mercy of God towards sinners.
Jesus did not show a lack of moral principles by sitting at table and consorting with sinners. Rather, his humility was rich and deep enough to make contact, even in them, with that indestructible core of goodness which is found in all, and upon which the future was to be built. He put them in touch with that in them selves. His goodness evoked goodness in them.
It would be easier, safer, and more popular for him to go among the good. But he was not thinking of himself. He was thinking of others, and of the mission given him by his father. He did not come to call the virtuous but rather sinners to repentance.