It had to happen. Yesterday, four of us enjoyed an afternoon at the Taste of Chicago, encouraging the Korean sisters to try the fried yucca, plaintain, sweet potato chips, and, yes, collard green egg rolls. We had a delightful time. Everything I love about Chicago was on display for our sisters. But last night, sirens were coming from all directions, responding to a stabbing on State Street.
My first thought on the news of the stabbing (a rather serious case, too) was the less than charitable, "What a jerk."
Then we get today's Gospel. When Jesus looked at Matthew the tax collector at work, most likely the first thought of many of those standing by, even those following Jesus was probably something like mine: "Tax collector. What a jerk." But Jesus looked at him (there's always that look) and saw something else. Asked to explain himself later on, he just said, "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." Some of those sinners are described in the first reading today from the prophet Amos. Not the blatant kind of exterior transgressors, but people with unjust hearts focused on greed, getting away with intellectual dishonesty and disregard for human dignity.
Jesus came to re-introduce something to society, but something so original that it was long lost and forgotten. The early Christian communities knew what it was and practiced it, and that is still the case in the newer Churches. At least that is what I witness time and again with people from younger Christian communities like those of Korea and Vietnam.
Last night we watched a documentary about the heroic Vietnamese Cardinal Van Thuan, the bishop who had been imprisoned by the Viet Cong for 13 years, 9 of them in solitary confinement. He had been brought up Catholic, and his grandfather's family had been martyred. Religious practices were not something taken for granted, but part of a whole life that was expected, in the most natural way, to be different from that of society in general.
In these younger Churches, as for the early Christians, you are making a commitment to a higher level of every day living, whereas here, I think, Catholicism has become comfortably assimilated to the level of ordinary human life (which then accommodates itself even more to "the desires of the flesh"). For the early Church, and for the younger Churches, it is clear that once you receive baptism, your life ought to be markedly different from the general culture: not "peculiar" and marked by odd, but picturesque, customs (the ancient letter to Diognetus makes that clear), but different in referring constantly to a higher, nobler, more transcendent standard. Even in ordinary things, one's response is calibrated to a different, more delicate scale. A truly distinctive frame of reference that applies to everything we encounter.
Something that last night's assailant clearly lacks. You can see how very small the knife-wielder's world is, how threatened he is on all sides, and therefore, how easily "disrespected" and quick to respond with violence. He has so little to defend, that in itself qualifies him unqualifiedly for Jesus' mercy.