You’ll remember last week we talked about wisdom. I mentioned the example of a television character who always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, and I asked you to think about a person that you considered to be wise. And I said that a wise person draws wisdom from a solid foundation – a foundation of rock. And then I suggested some ways that you could develop wisdom – build your own foundation – by developing your relationship with God.
Throughout the gospels we hear and see examples of the wisdom of Jesus. I wanted to mention Jesus as an example of wisdom, but felt that he was so far beyond anything that we could hope to achieve that it would be frustrating even to try. But Father Paul reminded me that Jesus is the wisdom of God. So even though we’ll never have the wisdom that Jesus has, if we are looking for an example of wisdom, we have no better example than Jesus.
We have an excellent example of Jesus’ wisdom in the Gospel today. Jesus called Matthew to be one of his apostles. Matthew was a tax collector. As a tax collector, Matthew, a Jew, was working for the Romans. The Romans didn’t like the tax collectors very much – the tax collectors were part of the conquered people and the Romans looked down on them. The Jewish people didn’t like them either, because they were collecting money for Rome – and they always collected some extra money for themselves. Because the tax collectors dealt with the Romans and used Roman money, tax collectors were considered unclean and they couldn’t worship in the temple. I can’t think of a profession today that’s despised by everyone the way tax collectors were.
We see the wisdom of Jesus (the wisdom of God) when Jesus asked this tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his closest disciples, and then sat down for a meal with him and the other tax collectors. You can understand that the Pharisees were upset by this. By eating with people who were considered unclean, Jesus was making himself unclean in their eyes. And then when the Pharisees criticized Jesus, he said that it was the sick who needed a physician, not those who were well – so it was his job to be with sinners. It might sound like Jesus was saying that the Pharisees weren’t sick – the tax collectors were – and that’s why he was eating with them.
But he slipped in this wonderful line to the Pharisees – he said: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” He was telling them that God is not worried about how people washed their hands or how they prepared their food – God is a God of mercy. He was telling the Pharisees that even though they thought they were doing just fine by following all of their rules, they were actually the ones who were sick and needed help – and they didn’t even know it. The irony of the situation and the wisdom of Jesus are amazing. Jesus was telling the Pharisees that they had built their houses on sand – without a solid foundation. And he was calling the tax collectors and the Pharisees (even though the Pharisees didn’t know it) to build their houses on the foundation of God – his Father. He was calling them to conversion.
We often hear this phrase: “We are called to conversion,” but what does it mean? One way we can understand it is to think about the house built on rock and the one built on sand – and think about what Jesus was saying in the Gospel today.
I have a friend who was a world-class runner in his youth. This was during the time when Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile: back in the 1950s. My friend got close to the four-minute mark in a couple of track meets. There was a company in the area that said the first person to break the four-minute mile would win a gold trophy. My friend was photographed with the trophy and the newspaper story said he would surely be the first one to run under four minutes. Well, at the next track meet he missed four minutes by a couple of seconds. Before he could make another attempt, another guy ran the mile under four minutes. My friend was so disappointed I don’t think he ever recovered. He never ran a mile under four minutes.
Later, he became a successful businessman. He put all his energies into his business. When the economy hit a downturn, he went bankrupt and lost his business. He also lost his house and his mother’s house; the houses had been used as collateral against a business loan. My friend was devastated. The next time I saw him, this once proud and confident man looked tentative, hesitant, insecure.
As a young man, he had built his foundation on his physical abilities. He was an amazing runner, and he defined himself by his accomplishments as an athlete. As an adult, he built his foundation on his business. He worked hard, drove a fancy car, had a nice house, and was always happy to buy a round of drinks. But you can see that his foundations were built on sand. His dream of running the first four-minute mile disappeared. His successful business disappeared. And when they went away, there was nothing left.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus called the tax collectors – especially Matthew – to conversion. He was calling them to build their foundation on the love and mercy of God. He was also calling the Pharisees to conversion, but they were so lost in their world of rules and regulations, they couldn’t understand that they had entirely missed the mark; God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
In the second reading, St. Paul talked about Abraham’s call to conversion. Abraham and Sarah were without children – very embarrassing, almost humiliating in their culture. And they were so old they had no hope of ever having children. But God called them to believe in him in a new way – to make him their foundation. And we know the rest of the story.
I think we all know people who built foundations on sand. I know a couple of guys who retired after successful careers. When their work was taken away, they lost themselves in alcohol, or television, or depression. Mothers sometimes define themselves by their role as parents: a never-ending cycle of cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, carting kids here and there, and often working outside the home. When the kids move away, they’re left with an empty, lonely feeling. Again, their foundation has shifted beneath their feet.
When Jesus calls us to conversion, he is calling us to make God our foundation. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be serious business people, or serious parents, or serious athletes. In fact, if God is our foundation, we can do all of these things better. If the Pharisees had been able to get past their rules and regulations and follow God’s call to love and mercy (as Jesus was telling them), they would have been better religious leaders.
God made a covenant with us. He said that he would be with us always. Jobs and kids and money are all important, but they don’t last forever. If we make them our foundation, our house will fall. If God is our foundation, all of these things can come and go, but our foundation remains strong. We may experience hardship or pain, but regardless of what life throws at us, we will have an anchor.
God won’t go away!