Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am." If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."
In Jesus we see one who loves and accepts each individual in his or her unique reality, just as life has formed us. His open acceptance of Levi as a conversation partner at dinner, and later as a trusted helper, is typical of this "Man For Others." The converted tax collector is not treated as a second-class citizen, simply for coming late into the Lord's circle of friends. How refreshing to hear Christ's warm welcome of Levi echoed in the words of pope Francis, in his call for the doors of the church to be open wide so that all may enter. Certainly Jesus believes in conversion: but he calls people to it in such a non-judgmental way, and awaits their positive response. How fully he would endorse Isaiah's conviction on this matter: "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am."
Isaiah offers a message that foreshadows the healing acceptance with which Jesus welcomes all who come to him. It is one of the prophet's most stirring promises, in God's own name: "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am." The promise that our God will always be near us, to guide us both in our actions and in our patient acceptance of what we cannot presently change, is a deep source of personal serenity. And then Isaiah adds a series of powerful metaphors, to reinforce the message of a caring God. He will make your bones strong; you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. This is the kind of conviction on which a person of faith can build, and which gives full meaning to any good effort we may be making for Lent.
In this morning's gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees ask why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? As far as they were concerned, to eat with tax collectors and sinners was to risk being contaminated by them. They would have argued that it was better to keep yourself separate from such people in order to preserve your moral health. However, Jesus did not share this concern. Rather than the sin of others infecting him, he knew that his goodness, God's goodness in him, would transform them. The Lord is never diminished by our failings; rather, we are always ennobled by his holiness. That is why the Lord does not separate himself from us, even when we might be tempted to separate ourselves from him, because of what we have done or failed to do. The Lord is always ready to sit with us, to share table with us, to enter into communion with us, in order that in our weakness we might draw from his strength and in our many failings we might draw from his goodness and love. [MH]