JESUS OPENS THE DOOR OF THE
CHURCH TO THE PUBLICANS
THE PUBLICANS OR TOLLGATHERERS OF THE JEWS VOCATION OF LEVI OR MATTHEW THE BANQUET OFFERED TO JESUS THE PHARISEES AND THE DISCIPLES OF JOHN ARE SCANDALISED IN TURN THE PHYSICIAN GOES TO THE SICK THERE IS NO FAST WHILE THE FEAST LASTS THE NEW PIECE ON THE OLD GARMENT THE NEW WINE AND THE OLD BOTTLES. (St. Luke v, 2739; St. Mark ii, 1322; St. Matt. ix, 917.)
HE Who had just astonished His enemies by an act of His supreme power, did not hesitate to jostle their dearest prejudices by an act of mercy.
In the eyes of a true Jew no one was more detestable than a tollgatherer or publican. This hated class, gathering the imposts in the name of Roman authority1, seemed to have become the living personification of foreign tyranny, of injustice, and of violence. When the taxgatherer was of pagan origin, he was detested as being also impure; if he was a Jew, he was abhorred as an apostate and traitor to his country. So that all those unfortunate men who, through cupidity or through necessity, lent their aid in this way to the general collectors sent from Rome, were commonly likened to thieves and public sinners. In reality, by force of circumstances they were not of any great worth. Hence the Jews refused them the right of giving testimony. They went so far even as to declare that penance and the remission of sins were to them almost impossible.2 The general management of the fiscal administration scattered them at intervals along the roads most frequented by caravans, on the frontier lines of different provinces, and wherever the right of way, of entrance, of exit, of sale might be sought. From this point of view Capharnaum was of exceptional importance, for not only was this town traversed by the great commercial road leading from Damascus to Ptolemais, but besides it was the mart for a vast quantity of merchandise transported by boat across the lake.
It was, therefore, a great station for taxgatherers. Everything indicates that several of this class had heard Jesus and were moved by His words; but their wellknown inferiority forbade them even the thought of coming to Him. One of them, Levi, or Matthew, of whom we have spoken elsewhere, was farther advanced than the others toward a generous conversion. Jesus, Whose divine eye scans the depths of all hearts, was not unaware of his good disposition, and He awaited a propitious moment to make him take the decisive step that would attach him to His following.
One day our Lord, accompanied by the multitude as He returned from the shore of the lake, where He loved to preach, reentered the city. As He passed in front of the customhouse He came upon Levi, the son of Alpheus, seated at his desk. The taxgatherer, grievously troubled at heart between the desire to become better and his unwillingness to leave a lucrative post, looked with envious eye upon the disciples who surrounded Jesus and were His ordinary associates. So holy a jealousy could not but do him honor. It is with souls as with fruit. There is a crisis of maturity. The final breath of grace is only needed to pass over them, and they fall upon God's bosom, where they were awaited. Levi had reached this critical point of the moral life. Jesus, inviting him with look and gesture, simply said: "Follow me." At once, as if he were awaiting only this call, the taxgatherer arose, and, leaving his desk, his profession, his friends, where they were, he gave himself up to follow the Master.
It is probable that, in commemoration of this great grace, Levi then changed his name to that of Matthew,3 gift of God, by which name he was ordinarily designated in the primitive Church. It was, indeed, a singular gift of God that transformed the taxcollector, the pariah of Jewish society, into a disciple and soon after into a prince of the new society. In order to celebrate a day so remarkable, Matthew gave a great banquet, to which he invited his fellow taxgatherers. At this farewell feast he desired to put them in communication with Jesus; and, already experiencing the apostolic zeal in the depths of his heart, he hoped to guide them to the point he himself had reached. The new era was begun for the unfortunate; it must be inaugurated with a family celebration.
Jesus, faithful to His principles of mercy and pardon for all, did not scruple to take His place in a gathering that was suspicious and apparently compromising. Thus the Pharisees and the doctors of the law who were watching Him were greatly scandalized.
The same man who, in the morning, proved His divine mission by a miracle, had the audacity in the evening to sit at a table where tax gatherers boisterously clasped hands with public sinners and people of base lives! They, therefore, uttered their objections to such conduct, and the disciples coming to the banquet, they even took apart and questioned them, saying: "Why do you eat and drink with publicans and sinners?" Was it their intention to separate them from the Master by inciting them to doubt and to scruple, or did they find it more to their purpose of securing an easy triumph to address themselves to ignorant men who were unable to respond, rather than to Jesus, whose crushing retorts they feared? It matters little. Their objection reached the Master's ear; He said simply: "They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill." This saying, borrowed, no doubt, from popular parlance, seems to be a topical reply to the objection raised. If it be true, indeed, as they think, that the observance of the law and of the supererogatory rites added to it is sufficient to render a man just and holy, then the Pharisees are thoroughly irreproachable, their spiritual health is perfect, and the care of the heavenly physician is superfluous. On the other hand, every one looks upon the taxgatherers as being ill, and so seriously ill that their condition seems beyond all hope. It is, therefore, right for Jesus to leave the former and to come charitably to the aid of the latter. If the Pharisees desire Him to minister unto them and it is far from certain that they have no need of it they must begin by avowing themselves sinners. Then the Savior will eagerly hasten to their side to effect their recovery.
His mission is to devote Himself to the unfortunate who seek Him: "Go then," He says, "and learn what this meaneth: `I will have mercy and not sacrifice.'"4 The charitable act that a man does for his fellow has greater value in God's sight than sacrifice itself which appears to be the highest expression of our religion and our devotion. Hence the reason why Jesus is more devoted to the saving of abandoned sinners than to the offering of victims in the Temple or to the practice of superfluous purifications and abstinences. He knows that His zeal for souls gives greater honor to God than all the devotions of pharisaical formalism. Sinners await Him, He will not desert them. This would be to forget the chief object of His mission. He adds: "I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance."
Baffled again on this point, when they were certain of victory, the enemies of Jesus almost immediately found other grievances. This time the Pharisees were not alone. To give greater strength to their new recriminations they had brought with them some of the followers of John the Baptist, and these they craftily placed in front, while they themselves kept in the background. They5 said to Him: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, whereas Thy disciples do not fast?" Before it was the company at the feast that had scandalized them; now it is the feast itself. It may be, as St. Mark6 seems to hint, that the banquet took place on a day when the Pharisees and the disciples of John were observing a rigorous fast. Yet it is probable that the fault was found rather with Jesus' ordinary line of conduct than with a passing event. Besides, we shall soon see that His adversaries speak of Him as an eater and drinker in order to make known the little respect He had for the fasts established by their formalist and absolutely arbitrary rigorism. The Lord, unmoved and with gracious suavity, made answer: "Can you make the children of the bridegroom7 fast, whilst the bridegroom is with them?" If the disciples of John had not forgotten their Master's discourses, they must have recognized in this the beautiful picture the Precursor had drawn long before8 in explaining his work and the part the Messiah was to take in the religious restoration that Israel awaited. They were reminded of it now as the affectionate reply that should close their lips. As the Precursor has said, He is the true Bridegroom, and the preaching of the Gospel is the time of the wedding, or the religious alliance of God's Envoy with the society He comes to establish. Why, then, ask what the Pharisees in practical life would not venture to exact? For they do not bind themselves to fast when they are present at a weddingfeast. "Besides," continues Jesus with an air of sadness, as He suggestively casts a prophetic glance into the future, "the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them; then shall they fast in those days." The issue of the conflict now on is known to Him; He makes it evident to His adversaries, and on this occasion more clearly so than when He promised to rebuild the temple, or when He spoke of the Son of Man raised up above the earth like the brazen serpent. The Bridegroom shall be taken away, borne off by violence; He expects it, and the very men to whom He speaks are to be the criminal actors of this awful drama. Then shall come days of woe and of suffering for the disciples. Dragged before the tribunals, condemned to most terrible tortures, to death, no longer by fasting and in tears, but by martyrdom and in blood shall they found the Church.
In the meantime, what would be gained by hastening to subject them to premature mortification? It would only fill them with discouragement and despair. "No man," He says with lofty familiarity, "putteth a piece from a new garment upon an old garment; otherwise he both rendeth the new, and the piece taken from the new agreeth not with the old." The disciples are as yet men of the ancient Judaism; if, while permitting them their former practices, Jesus were to impose upon them some portion of His own religion, by such patchwork He would compromise all. On the one hand, Judaism is not sufficiently powerful to support the new religious idea, and, on the other, Christianity is not to be bestowed in fragments in order to reanimate the religion of the Pharisees. When the hour shall have struck, these citizens of the Kingdom of God will cast off the old garment of legality according to Moses, and put on the new cloak of Christian spirituality. Then the law of mortification as found among the disciples may be compared with that among the Pharisees, and it shall be proclaimed on which side true heroism is discovered. For the present, Jesus has every consideration for souls as yet without experience and of little generosity.
"And no man," He goes on, "putteth new wine into old bottles: otherwise the new wine will break the bottles, and it will be spilled and the bottles will be lost. But the new wine must be put into new bottles, and both are preserved." He repeats the same thought as before, but under a new figure. The bottles that were passed around toward the end of the feast had naturally suggested this graceful comparison. He sees in this new, glowing, generous wine, now served, a symbol of the spirituality characteristic of His religion. It would be wrong immediately to place it in His disciples, filled, as they are, with their old dispositions; they would be unable to sustain it. For the time being it is enough to strive to effect a renewal of their souls now vitiated by passions and by an illunderstood religion. When He shall have them retempered, recast in a new mold, in a word, regenerated, He will place before them, together with all the other precepts, the law of mortification which is the sinew of Christian morality. At present those carnal ears would not comprehend that which is beyond the powers of nature. "No man," adds Jesus, with a kind of amiable gaiety, "drinking old, hath presently a mind to new; for he saith, the old is better." For new wine, even though superior in quality, produces by its tartness a disagreeable impression on one who drinks it for the first. time, and makes him long for a liquor less fine, perhaps, but whose bitter, sharp taste has been softened by the lapse of years. It is difficult to become accustomed to it, and some respite is desired that so radical a change may be received only little by little. Thus we may perceive, in this quite appropriate amenity, that the Savior's thought is to make Himself everything to every man in order to lead all to God. Having, in his mercy, opened the gates of the Messianic Kingdom to the meanest of sinners, He intends, moreover, to be cautious in leading on feeble souls, and to lay the new law entirely before them only when He has made them able to bear it.
The ancients loved to discourse at table, and it was not an unusual thing to find philosophy or politics reserved for the end of a feast, and the most burning questions then taken up. For it seems that, at this moment, the gathering, accustomed to breathe the same atmosphere of intimacy, and knowing already, through the common interchange of ideas, the opinions of all, forms an audience most happily disposed in favor of whoever may speak, especially if he has already shown by his words the superiority of his mind. Jesus readily lent Himself to the customs of His time and of His country. We shall see how, on more than one occasion, at feasts, He treats, with a familiarity that is sublime, the most delicate points of His teaching, and at times provokes, at times solves, the malicious objections of His enemies. It was at His farewell banquet, at the Last Supper, that He gave utterance to the most beautiful discourses that the ear of man has ever heard.
Crushed by His logic, as gracious as it was irresistible, and disconcerted by His charity, the Pharisees could say nothing. But now an unexpected event set Jesus before them once more as a Worker of miracles. So fair a day could not end more gloriously than by revealing Him as the Sovereign Master, not of nature alone, but of death.
1 We commonly translate the word telwnhs (from telos, "tax," and wneomai, "I buy") "publican," a name given to taxgatherers by the Synoptics designating really a class of collectors higher in position than the one mentioned here. When Rome had decided to farm out to particular persons the various imposts she wished to levy, there were formed wealthy associations of citizens, belonging usually to the equestrian order, who took upon themselves, at their own risk and peril, the burden of collecting all fiscal dues, and bound themselves to pay a sum, settled in advance, into the public treasury (in publicum). (Cf. Liv., xxxii, 7.) Hence their name "publican." They were represented in the provinces by collectors who had under their orders customhouse officers. It is of these last that the Gospel speaks when it mentions the publicans. It is true that they might well have borne this generic name, since they were looked upon as laboring for the public treasury as well as their hierarchical chiefs.
2 Lightfoot, Harm. Evang., P. 525.
3 The Passage in St. Matt. ix, 9, Maqqaion legomenon, Implies that this name took the place of another less known. In Hebrew Mattaï means, more exactly, "gratified," and Amattaï, "the faithful one."
4 Osee vi, 6. "For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than holocausts."
5 In Luke v, 38, it is the Pharisees and the Scribes who speak; in Mark ii 18, it is the disciples of John and the Pharisees together; in Matt. ix, 14, it is only the disciples of John another variant difficult to explain if there was one common written source.
6 St. Mark ii, 18.
7 Nothing is more touching than the condescension of Jesus when He speaks of His disciples. They are His intimate friends, His brothers, the children of the nuptial chamber, in the Hebrew expression He employs, to show how completely they are initiated into the life of the Church and into the affectionate relations between the bride and the bridegroom.
8 St. John iii, 29.
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