“WHY DO YOU HANG OUT WITH SINNERS?” (Mk 2:13-17): 19 January 2008 (Saturday)

Today’s Readings

Some of the most enjoyable scenes in the “Harry Potter” movies are those where Harry gets on his Nimbus broomstick for a game of Quidditch.  Taking to the sky and streaking across it–all that reminds me of my childhood obsession for flying.  When I think about it, this desire to defy gravity–some of it may have actually rubbed off in my spiritual life. 

What do I mean?  I grew up thinking that the best way–if not the only way–to God was up.  I had this impression that if we wanted to look for God, we should set our eyes upwards, heavenwards, just like the statues of saints that we see in churches. Or if not heaven, at least we should look for him only in the better places in this world, the clean and holy places of our lives. And if I wanted to grow close to him, what I needed to do was to raise myself, elevate myself, as it were, to become a better person: Get rid of my limitations. Get rid of my sins. Try my best to avoid evil and strive to be a holier, more prayerful person. In other words, defy gravity.

For a while there, that’s what I tried to do. But as I grew older, I realized how frustrating that whole enterprise could be. For example:

– Prying yourself out of bed on Sunday morning just to experience that height of Catholic boredom called the Sunday Mass.

– Forcing yourself to be modest when you really much prefer to advertise those accomplishments of yours that nobody notices.

– Or trying to shut up when it’s so much easier—and so much more fun—to say something nasty and witty.

So you see, this business of trying to be good and holy, of raising yourself and defying gravity—it can get pretty tiring and frustrating after a while. And at a certain point in my life, that’s exactly what happened to me.  I simply gave up and became what people would call a “lapsed Catholic.”  Now, many years and many detours later, I’m older and I realize that in trying to defy gravity, I may have just missed the whole point of Christianity.

It’s not that we shouldn’t avoid sin; we certainly should exert every effort to do that. It’s not that we can’t become holier persons; we should never give up praying for that grace because more than human effort, holiness is a divine grace. Rather, the very point of Christianity is that God isn’t found only in heaven or in the clean and holy places of our lives. That because of Christ, God is, more than we think, accessible, everywhere, there wherever we turn—a presence hidden but universal.

In today’s gospel story, our Lord does the unthinkable:  He picks out a notoriously corrupt tax collector named Levi (also known as Matthew) to be one of his disciples and invites himself to dinner at his house.  Stunned and scandalized, the Pharisees ask, “Why does he hang out with tax collectors and sinners?”

It’s a valid question:  If Jesus claims to be a wise teacher and a holy man, he has no business hanging out with people like sinners like Levo–and come to think of it, sinners like us.

So my question today is:  “Why do you hang out with us sinners?”

The answer to that question is what he has been trying to say all along:  That this Jesus, in whom we believe the ungatherable boundless Heaven has been mysteriously gathered—this Jesus isn’t about a God who stays only within the confines of the clean and sacred places of our lives. No, this Jesus is about the Infinite Light infusing every rock, every tree, every bird, the heart of every person. He is about God becoming truly one of us—even if it means smearing himself with the mud of our earth, with the stench of our sweat, and the stain of our blood. He is about God who wants to be as close as possible to us, even to the sinners among us.

In other words, he isn’t at all about defying gravity. He is about a God who yields to gravity—to the gravity of, the full weight and full load of his love for us, especially for the sinners among us.

And so, if we want to look for God, our best bet is to look for Christ in his hiding places. And where are his hiding places? The Christ of the Gospels was found not so much in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem, not so much among the priests and pharisees. Rather, he was found, more often than not, in the company of the lepers, the poor, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes. In other words, the sinners and the slobs.

And so today, like before, if we want to find him, we should look not only above us, but also around us and especially below us. And that’s because he knows it’s nearly impossible for us humans to defy gravity.  We simply can’t do it on our own.

Once in a while, however, with our prayers and especially God’s help, some of us like the saints are able to do it, if only for a while.  In other words, if we keep praying for it and if he wants to, who knows?  God may just send a Nimbus 2000.

(image:  from Harry Potter)

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