The National Catholic Review
Jesus’ words, "I came to call sinners...", are a compendium of Gospel themes. They acknowledge that we are sinners; they reveal the divine intent on finding what was lost and giving life to what was dead. But these words are cited by Gospel writers for still another purpose. The society in which Jesus lived had its own rules about the desired conversion of sinners. These were basically two. First,stay away from sinners; association with them corrupts. "One bad apple spoils the barrel." Second, if sinners are to convert, they have to become aware that indeed they are sinners; this is done by staying away from them, a sign that people see wrong in their actions. They must know another judgment than their own, and the way to convey this is not to associate with them. We can add that certain types of sin made Jews impure, i.e. unworthy to pray in the presence of God, and association with these people made impure those associating with them. As is clear from the Gospels, Jesus did not stay away from sinners, but participated in two very close associative acts: he entered their houses and he ate with them. His defense for doing these things, for getting close to sinners, was to convert them, have them repent. Jesus had no love for their sins, only for them. He proved himself untainted by association with them and certainly gave no hint to them that their judgment in the matter of conduct was better than his. All of this led to nothing short of death for Jesus. Everyone loved his miracles, but many did not like his flaunting of the triditional interpretations of Law. They saw in his actions and teaching only a flippancy toward God’s will; to live, with spite for God’s law, was a sure cause of divine punishment - better that this sinner be done away with than that Israel be punished (once again) for tepidity in defending God’s law. So Jesus constantly had to defend himself, for he was not going to stop his search for the lost, stop his giving life to the dead. Behind the sweet saying, then, that ’I have come to call sinners...’ (and to call them as I know best) is the harsh defense of the divine determination, even at the cost of death, have the prodigal children return. It is that determination that cost Jesus his life. He knew it would and judged that association with the likes of us was worth it. Such was, and is our worth to him. John Kilgallen, SJ