We are bombarded with talk of love. Advertisements capitalize on it with inspiring scenes and gestures; music extols its virtues; and greeting cards convey tender sentiments. And yet there seems to be so little genuine love in the world. Perhaps this is because we do not think that some people have earned our love. So few people seem to have our interests at heart. How can we be expected to love them? Even our friends and family members are often fickle and unreliable. When they are, do they deserve our love?
The picture is not totally bleak. We all know of people whose love for another person cannot be questioned. Parents often continue to make sacrifices for children who are ungrateful. Wives and husbands care tenderly for stricken spouses who show no signs of improvement. We all know selfless neighbors, teachers, church personnel. The world is not devoid of genuine love.
Two of today’s readings address the issue of love. The nature imagery found in the passage from Hosea, characterizing God’s care for the people, is striking in its tenderness. The first light of dawn is always filled with promise. Darkness and the fear that invades it lose their hold, and new possibilities accompany the new light. Spring rain has life-giving properties. It waters the earth and quenches the thirst of living creatures. It is no wonder the ancients characterized their creator-god as a storm deity.
Lest we lose ourselves in the beauty of this poetry, we should not forget that the divine tenderness and care of which it speaks are lavished on people whose “piety is like a morning cloud, like dew that early passes away.” In other words, the heat of the day dissipates it. Such piety is certainly fickle and unreliable. Such devotion does not earn God’s care.
The prophet continues with God’s words, which are alarming: “For this reason I smote them through the prophets, I slew them by the words of my mouth.” God is not happy with superficial piety, devotion that vanishes in the heat of life. What does God ask of us? Piety that is grounded in genuine love. It is not enough to offer sacrifice; it is not enough to fulfill one’s “Sunday obligation.” The responsorial psalm emphasizes this. God does not need our sacrifices or holocausts. Instead, God desires genuine love. The Hebrew word used by Hosea is hesed, the steadfast loving-kindness that is associated with covenant commitment.
The Gospel reading illustrates this same theme. Matthew was a customs officer, a Jew hired by the hated Roman occupiers. He was one of those who usually sat at borders collecting taxes on goods in transit. Since tax collectors were not generally salaried, their livelihood came from what they could exact from people over and above the taxes required. Matthew was not the kind of man the Jewish populace would trust, much less admire. His occupation marked him as a sinner. Yet he was called by Jesus to follow him. In fact, Jesus even entered the house of this sinner and shared a meal with him. What had Matthew done to deserve such an honor? Nothing.
When the self-righteous expressed their disdain to the disciples, Jesus replied: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It is true that Matthew had not earned the privilege of being called by Jesus. He was, in fact, in need of the care that only Jesus could give. The mercy of which Jesus spoke is also associated with covenant commitment.
These two readings point to the undeserved love and mercy that God desires to bestow on us. However, here the love and mercy are what God expects of us. These readings present us with a double challenge. First, they call us to the realization that we cannot earn God’s love and mercy. Since we live in societies that are often governed by some form of merit system, this is a difficult lesson to learn. It is a lesson in humility as well. Second, the readings tell us that such love and mercy are required of us as well. Our piety must be rooted deeply in covenant commitment, not merely in external practices, and we must be merciful in our dealings with others.
These two readings point to another issue, the unacceptability of merely external practices. It is clear that the people at the time of Hosea offered sacrifices and holocausts to God. They may have even believed that these fulfilled their obligation. But they did not. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were recognized interpreters of the faith. Their condemnation of Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners suggests that in their view, their own observance of law and custom made them righteous in the eyes of God. But it did not. External observance, as important as it certainly is, cannot compare with the genuine love and mercy required of disciples of Jesus. It is this kind of love that really makes the world go ’round.