As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
I’ve always counseled my sons about the company they keep, that they should surround themselves with persons who encourage good behavior. It’s advice that pretty much every parent has offered at some point. We don’t want our children hanging with drug addicts or persons who are at odds with the law because we don’t want our children to be influenced by them.
But unfortunately it seems that Jesus doesn’t have our back on this sage parental advice. He was regularly accused of hanging out with the “wrong” folks, and it’s true, he was guilty of that. (I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever warned Jesus about befriending the wrong crowd?)
But if Jesus had followed our parental wisdom, we might not have the Gospel of Matthew and its namesake. We know the kind of scoundrels tax collectors were back in Jesus’ day (I’ll refrain from any modern political parallel!). Tax collectors back then often took more than the government required. They were reviled, lumped in with sinners and untouchables.
The Pharisees, clearly concerned about the company Jesus was seeking, questioned his disciples. Jesus was clear, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” And then he gets more pointed, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
He told them to go and learn their own Scripture! Ouch.
There is a similar challenge among us today in the life and witness of our Holy Father who has made every effort to go to the peripheries of society. The Holy Father has been clear that his is a ministry of mercy in the context of a culture of encounter modeled after Our Lord. We are urged by Francis to cultivate friendship and dialogue with those outside of our usual circles, particularly those who are often neglected and ignored. We may have to get our hands and feet dirty and even risk being accused of hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Of course, I’ll still caution the young about being negatively influenced by misbehaving friends, but what better way to teach our children than by showing them how to share Christ’s love with those most in need of the mercy of God?