On Being Chosen

Saturday after Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 5:27-32

Today, we hear Isaiah preaching the benefits of living a Godly life — that the Chosen People will “ride on the heights of the earth.” Then, in the gospel of St. Luke, we see the Word incarnate choosing the lowest of the Jews, a tax collector, and even having dinner with a large crowd of tax collectors. Imagine the indignation of the upright Jews who saw this, who expected the Messiah to bless them, not the money-grubbing agents of the state. The lesson Jesus gives us is his great egalitarian message: all are offered the chance to be God’s chosen children. 

Isaiah’s words, which are a continuation of yesterday’s Old Testament reading, sound an awful lot like St. Paul’s words 700 years later. That’s because they both speak of God’s precepts, which are unchanging. More generally, they speak of the greatest commandment that we should first love the Lord our God above all else and then our neighbors as we love ourselves. Let’s compare the two following passages:

(1) If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech;
If you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness

(2) As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Which comes from Isaiah and which from St. Paul? The first talks about good works of charity and images of light dispelling darkness. We’ve heard those things many times from St. Paul. Plus, the second one talks about God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, words that the Hebrew nation traditionally used to refer to itself. So, that’s Isaiah, right?

The Vision of Isaiah (1838), Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, oil on oak panel | Creative Commons.

Nope.

The first one is Isaiah from today’s reading and the second is St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:12-13). God’s message, the Word, is consistent and unchanging. It is the perfection of truth and wisdom. This is why our holy scripture contains both the Old and New Testaments. Christ didn’t change the fundamental message that God gives to humanity. What He clarified was the scope of the message (its universality). He also ruptured all of time with the life-giving spring of his resurrected Body and began the holy liturgy, which the Spirit pours out upon us daily.

Today’s readings speak specifically to the clarification in scope that Christ shares. The Hebrews in Isaiah’s time had lived through several thousand years of blessings and curses, each connected to the actions of its people, kings, priests and judges. The prophets in the Old Testament are very consistent in their call to repentance and upholding God’s precepts. The master narrative could be summed up in Isaiah’s words we hear today: if they follow his commandments,

Then the LORD will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land.
He will renew your strength,
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose water never fails.

The Jews who received this message very much took it to heart, establishing a very robust set of rules and laws to follow so as to stay in God’s grace. Rabbinic tradition tells us that there are 613 mitzvot (תרי״ג מצוות), or commandments, in the scriptures. These include 365 “negative commandments” (prescribe what not to do) and 248 “positive commandments.” Knowing all of these commandments, much less staying pure by following them all, became a specialized and serious business.

Central to the commandments is the concept of purity — of distinguishing between clean and unclean, pure and impure — in thought, action, inanimate, and animate things. And people: the first distinction was Jews and non-Jews (or “Greeks” as we hear them described throughout the New Testament). But even among Jews there were definite distinctions between those considered holy and those who held lower stations by birth, situation, or behavior. Take the much-maligned Samaritans, who were just as much Jewish as the Jews returning from Assyria, only they had stayed behind in their sacked towns and lived with (and intermarried with) the invaders. 

Into this legalistic impurity minefield, Jesus was born. And we can start to understand why the Pharisees (a religious sect opposed to assimilation with non-Jews and expert in impurity laws) and their scribes “complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?'”

As inheritors of 2,000 years of Christian thought and practice, it’s easy for us to consider their words as prejudiced invective, but many Jews of the time probably wondered the same thing about Jesus. They had inherited several thousand years of purity laws that were built on making distinctions. And here was a man people called the Messiah seeming to disregard all of these distinctions.

But Jesus’ masterful reply to the Pharisees acknowledges the distinctions: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” The Word of Truth here affirms that sin exists and some people live in it, but he displays for us a new way of relating to the sinful: to serve them, to call them to repentance. He also affirms that the Pharisees are “healthy” and “righteous.” But underlying these complements is a gentle reproach for how they look down upon the sinful instead of looking at them with eyes of love.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), Caravaggio | Wikimedia Commons. Matthew (Levi) sits counting money at the far left, while Christ on the far right, signified by the halo, points to him (the hand that of the Sistene Chapel), calling him as a disciple. The beautiful use of light and shading emphasizes the light of God breaking into the darkness. It is a remarkable study of the heavenly meeting the earthly and the light of God seeking us wherever we are.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is the clearest expansion of Jesus’ message here. The father welcomes the prodigal son, but much of the lesson is for the good son who stayed home and has a hard time understanding his father’s generosity towards the profligate son. The father’s reply is that the good son already has an honored place in his father’s house and the welcoming of the prodigal son in no way diminishes that place. The Pharisees and Jews living God’s commandments are the “good son,” while Christ’s mission is to gather as many prodigal sons as He can.

Christ’s message re-framed the Jewish inheritance of God’s commandments and extended it, in love, to those living in darkness. He opened up the true faith in the true God to all rather than keeping it hidden behind layers of commandments and concerns over purity.

And thus, Matthew, one of the great gospel writers, was saved from a sinful life. In responding to God’s call, St. Matthew has, in turn, brought light to millions of people throughout the world.

May we all hear Jesus as He calls us out personally to follow Him. And may we each accomplish just a sliver of what St. Matthew accomplished after answering the call.

 

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