ROME, JUNE 3, 2005 (Zenit.org).- In his commentary on this Sunday’s readings, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, talks about the calling of St. Matthew.
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God Desires Mercy
There is something moving in the Gospel of the day. Matthew does not tell us about something that Jesus did or said to somebody, rather what he said and did to him. It is an autobiographical page, the story of his meeting with Christ which changed his life.
“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ He rose and followed him.” The incident is not mentioned in the Gospels, however, because of the personal importance invested in Matthew. The interest is due to what follows after the moment of the calling. Matthew wished to give a great banquet in his home, to bid farewell to his former work companions, “publicans and sinners.”
To the indefectible reaction of the Pharisees, Jesus replies: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'” What does that phrase mean, which Jesus quoted from the prophet Hosea? Perhaps it means that all sacrifice and mortification is useless, and that it is enough to love for everything to go well? This passage might lead some to reject Christianity’s ascetic dimension, as residue of an afflictive and Manichean mentality that must be overcome.
First of all we must observe a profound change of perspective. In Hosea, the expression refers to man, to what God desires of him. God desires love and knowledge of man, not external sacrifices and holocausts of animals. When Jesus expresses it, instead, he refers to God. The love that is mentioned is not the one that God requires of man, but the one he gives man. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” means: I desire to use mercy, not to condemn. Its biblical equivalent is what is said in Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (33:11).
God does not desire “to sacrifice” his creature, but to save him. With this clarification, one also understands better Hosea’s expression. God does not desire sacrifice at all costs, as if he enjoyed seeing us suffering; nor does he desire sacrifice made to claim rights and merits before him, or out of a misunderstood sense of duty. Instead he desires sacrifice that is required by his love and by the observance of the Commandments. “One does not live in love without sorrow,” says the Imitation of Christ, and daily experience itself confirms it. There is no love without sacrifice. In this connection, St. Paul exhorts us to make of all our life “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” (Romans 12:1).
Sacrifice and mercy are good things, but they can become evil if they are badly distributed. They are good things if (as Christ did) one chooses sacrifice for oneself and mercy for others. They become evil if the opposite is done, and mercy is chosen for oneself and sacrifice for the rest, if one is indulgent with oneself and rigorous with others, always ready to excuse ourselves and merciless when judging others. Have we nothing to change in regard to our conduct?
We cannot conclude the commentary on Matthew’s vocation without affectionate and grateful acknowledgement to this evangelist who accompanies us with his Gospel in the course of the whole of this first liturgical year.
Caravaggio, who painted “The Calling of St. Matthew,” also left a picture of the evangelist while he was writing his Gospel. An early version was destroyed in Berlin during the last war. In a second version, which has come down to us, he is kneeling on the footstool, with his pen in hand, listening attentively to the angel (his symbol) who transmits divine inspiration to him. Thank you, St. Matthew. Without you, how much poorer would be our knowledge of Christ!
[Italian original published in Famiglia Cristiana; translation by ZENIT]