When I read the Bible, I go through the Gospels again and again, a little each day, and one other book bit by bit. Lately, I have been moving through the book of Sirach. There is a lot of good, practical advice in there, and not a few warnings about sinful and stupid behavior. The struggle with reading the advice and counsel of the Scriptures is knowing how far I am below the standards that are enunciated. It can be a reminder of the frailty of my own humanity. Taken the wrong way, what God commands, and threatens, can cause one the wrong kind of sorrow, the feeling of not being good enough. Such was the problem with the Pharisees.
They knew the law and the commandments, and had strict interpretations about how one became righteous in the sight of the Lord. It is obvious from the Gospels that they did not always agree among themselves, and we know there were different schools of thought on Jewish religious practice. Nevertheless, Jesus often had confrontations with them and He scandalized them on many occasions with what He said and did. The above passage from the Gospel of Luke is one of those times, since the Pharisees were offended by the presence of Jesus at table with tax collectors and other sinners. This event took place in the home of Levi, also called Matthew, the tax collector.
What struck me in reading this passage in the middle of the night was that Jesus does not deny that the people He was with were sinners. Nor does He disagree, on most occasions, with what the Pharisees considered to be sinful. In fact, they were morally upstanding people, and outwardly pious. What they lacked, however, was the insight that Jesus brought to the world by His Gospel and His life: the mercy of God for all sinners. Sick [read: sinful] people need the Divine Physician who actually desires to heal us and forgive us. He does not ignore sin; He’s the One who set up the whole system in the first place (creation), and sin is the deliberate violation of how things are supposed to work. In other words, when it comes to our sinfulness, whether we see it in ourselves or in others, God says, “That’s true, it is sinful; however, I am here to heal that sin.”
Truth is one of the attributes of God. Jesus calls Himself “the Truth” which sets us free. The problem we can have with regards to the truth is that we only see a part of it at any given time. We think we can fit it into our heads and categorize it logically and completely. In reality, the truth is larger than our minds, and there is always something more to learn and take in; or rather, we should be seeking to immerse ourselves in the infinite ocean of Truth that is God Himself rather than try to fit what is incomprehensible into our puny minds.
When it comes to pointing out or acknowledging what is sinful, we are obligated to assess what is good, true and appropriate, and what is not. The highest function of the human intellect is to be able determine what is right, and what is wrong. It is an act of judgment. What God forbids us to do is to judge that this or that person is sinful, even though it may be patently obvious that he or she has done something wrong or sinful. We cannot pierce the veil of another’s heart; Saint Paul goes so far as to say that he wouldn’t even judge himself, leaving that to God.
What the Lord desires is that we turn to Him and allow the truth of His mercy to work on our behalf, whether we may be the worst of sinners or the greatest of saints. Though I may be encumbered with the most horrific sins, even if that be true, there is a “however” from Jesus. We can’t fool Him into not seeing our sins; He knows them better than we do, for He bore them all on the cross. When we bring them to Him, acknowledge them and confess them: Lord, I have done this, this and this, then He adds His however, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” His mercy is what separates Christianity (and authentic Judaism) from all other religions: We do not go looking to uncover God via meditation and truth seeking, or idol worship or interior enlightenment; He finds us, for He has come in search of us. Yes, we may be riddled with faults and failures, sins and imperfections, either seen by the world or hidden in our own conscience; however, Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance, and fill them with His mercy. That’s a powerful “however”.