Jesus knows his target audience. He’s not looking for people who have it all together: that’s a good thing, because there aren’t many people in that category. Actually, there’s no one in that category, maybe just some people who look like they have it all together. Appearances can be deceiving. Jesus is looking for people who have messed up and missed the mark: in other words, sinners. That’s the definition of sin, after all: to aim and miss the mark, either by a little or by a lot. That’s Jesus’ target audience.
This audience was baked into the program from the very beginning. Jesus’ own identity, his name itself, defined the nature of his ministry. Before Jesus is even born, the angel tells Joseph: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). When Jesus healed the paralytic, earlier in our chapter, he himself asked “For which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’ (Matt. 9:5). “Take heart, son” Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2). The ability to forgive sins is part of his core mission, because sin is part of what we all have in common. It’s what afflicts us, so forgiveness is part of the cure.
Sometimes people think that all this talk about sin is depressing, or doesn’t give the human race enough credit. There’s no doubt that talk about sin is sometimes used to beat up on people, but that’s not really the point. If people are singled out as “miserable offenders” and held up for shame, that might well be manipulative; but the real point is that sin is what we have in common. St. Paul says in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This is our common ground, the place we all stand.
The real point of letting God know we are “miserable offenders” is to remind ourselves that we’re really no better than anyone else. The opposite idea does tend to creep in: that sinners are a different group of people; different, that is, from us. “God, I thank you I am not like other people” (Lk. 18:11), the religious leader prays in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. But the truth is the exact opposite. We are all like other people. We all bear the mark of Adam’s sin. Jesus’ story is a study in humility.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes the same point, this time not with a story but with an action. He calls Matthew, and then joins him for dinner. This scandalizes the religious leaders of the People, because Matthew is a tax collector and a sinner. The religious leaders wonder what Jesus is up to by going to Matthew’s house.
You have to remember that tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not just unpleasant people with a regrettable task. Much worse, they were the mainstays of the Roman occupation, extorting money from the people in order to pay the troops and finance the bureaucratic apparatus of oppression. They were bad people. For Jesus to go to Matthew’s house, like he was a normal person, was provocative to say the least.
In response, Jesus points out that sinners are the people who need him! “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). God’s program of outreach to sinners is good news, not just for tax collectors but for all of us. That’s Jesus’ growth program for the church, because everyone is in that target audience. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.
The point about sin, however, is really a point about forgiveness: freely available to all through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which destroys sin and puts death to flight. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13), Jesus says in our Gospel reading: a quote from the prophet Hosea that he models in his own life by extending mercy and forgiveness to the tax collector. It’s the same mercy he extends to us.
Today in our liturgy of baptism and confirmation, forgiveness is extended to each of our candidates through the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins that we talk about in the Creed. Each of us, along with them, reminds ourselves of our fundamental identity as forgiven sinners as we renew our own baptismal vows. God is powerful in their lives and in our ours through his mercy and grace given to us. God is calling each of us, just as he called Matthew, to join him at table and to share in the feast. Now’s the time to hear the call and to receive the gift, of mercy and forgiveness of sins.