This entire week in the daily readings we have seen the contrast between hardness of heart and conversion of heart. On Sunday, the people of Israel, newly freed from Egypt, are called “stiff-necked,” while Paul describes himself as “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,” and the Pharisees are amazed that Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them. Later we see statements about what kind of person should be chosen to be bishops and deacons, and Jesus complaining that the same people who complain about John the Baptist’s asceticism complain about Jesus’ lack of asceticism. Tomorrow will culminate with the Pharisees asking the disciples why Jesus eats with sinners, to which Jesus gives the classic answer:
“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.” (MT 9:12-13)
Throughout, Jesus and Paul point us toward authentic humility. Holiness is not really about all the virtuous deeds we can stack up, since that can very easily end up simply inflating our Christian egos. Jesus’ citation here of the book of Hosea (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” – Hosea 6:6) points to a standard thread in the prophetic tradition that sacrifice without transformed consciousness, without justice and mercy, is worse than worthless, because it can so easily allow us to believe that we are “doing it right,” that all I need to do is throw a little food through the bars of the cage that I keep God in, and I will stay firmly in control of my own salvation. There is a book in which one of the characters has a vision of the afterlife, which involves crossing a bridge over a lake of fire, and the character is horrified to see that as people cross the bridge into salvation, even their virtues are being burned away. What is left for the person's ego to hang its hat on? Instead, perhaps real holiness is more about allowing ourselves to be honest and acknowledge how much of a mess we really are. Of course, we don’t want to be a mess, and we don’t even want to admit that we are a mess. But when Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” who of us can honestly say that we are righteous? Of course, the standard line in our day is to talk about how “I’m not really into religion, but I’m a good person.” What exactly does that mean? I am only too aware that I’m not a good person – in fact, the more I pay attention to what I do, and why I do it, even the stuff that on the surface looks like “good-deed-doing” usually comes out of a selfish motive – to look good, to manipulate the other person, or even just to allow myself to believe that I am a “good person.”
Do we notice how Jesus keeps going to sinners and tax collectors, to people who have been kicked around and who, we might think, deserve what they get? Do any of us really think we deserve what we get? The “sinner and tax collector” type in our time could be the compulsive gambler who loses his house and whose family leaves him, the pregnant teenager who has to face the rejection of her peers and who has to grow up really fast to raise her child, or perhaps even the politician or celebrity who gets caught in some compromising situation and gets lambasted by the media. At that point, for that person, mercy is no longer about earning Brownie points, no longer about stacking up proofs of one’s virtuousness, but about gratitude for being shown mercy. That is just what we see in today’s gospel (LK 7:36-50) – this woman who comes to Jesus has nothing to prove, no ego to wave in anybody’s face – everyone knows who she is. But Jesus never attacks what in Jungian terms we might call the shadow – what we try to keep others from seeing about ourselves – instead, he hammers the ego, in this case, Simon the Pharisee’s ability to say that this woman is not worthy of Jesus’ attention, while he (Simon) presumably is. Since he does not see himself as in need of mercy, he is not grateful for the mercy that he has in fact received and does not respond with the mercy that comes from being treated mercifully. The point of all of this is simply Jesus’ own point – what God desires from us is mercy, not a self-serving, condescending pity that can make us feel smug about how tolerant and generous we are, but the mercy that comes from realizing how desperately inadequate we are, and how desperately we are in need of the mercy we have in fact received. As usual, "Mercy within mercy within mercy..."