In the Company of Sinners

Antonio, P. Pueyo
10th Sunday of the Year
June 5, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

He is back on the streets that he left more than twenty years ago. He walks in the shadows and talks to friends he has known in what seems to be another lifetime. He talks to the present street children, both boys and girls. They are surviving by whatever means necessary, sometimes selling their bodies. Some are not yet in their teens but in their weary eyes one can see that they have become familiar with the ways of the world.

He was one of them. He was a street urchin, abandoned by his parents. He has survived. He has slept on the sidewalks and under bridges. He has left the streets many years ago and came under the kindly treatment of some Sisters. He has earned the title of "Doctor". He has also become a priest. And now he is back among the street children.

This is a true story, although it sounds like the novel of Morris West, "Children of the Sun", about a priest in Naples. This is in the Philippines. This is a real person, a real priest. He still walks the streets of a city in Mindanao. You might have met him without knowing it. I know it is true because he told us his story. He was our retreat master.

Here is another story that beats novels and movies. This story was in the newspapers last week. A busload of people were held up and taken as hostages by armed men. This brave man negotiated with the armed men and ended up driving the car with the hostages and hold uppers. There was a chase, with the police and the military behind. At the end, the hostages were freed when the armed men left the car in a forested area. The driver? He is Bishop Emmanuel Cabajar of Pagadian, a Filipino Redemptorist.

Why take such risks on one's life and reputation? There are many other stories like these. There was the story of Francis of Assisi who left behind a life of riches and comfort and became a poor person among the poor. There was Mother Teresa of Calcutta who left behind a comfortable convent in order to take care of the sick and the dying on the stree ts of the city. There was Fr. Damien who left the United States to live among the lepers in the Pacific island of Molokai. After many years as their pastor, he prefaced his sermon with the words, "We lepers ". He became one of them.

Back to the question, why take such risks? The answer is, because Jesus took risks.

Every society has its marginal people. They live in the edges. They are not considered part of the mainstream. This may be due to their social and economic status, their tribe, color of skin, occupation or religion. Or this could be due to their moral standing. This was true of the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the Samaritans, and the lepers during the time of Jesus.

Imagine in this Sunday's gospel story Matthew sitting by his tax collector's table. He was unwanted. He was considered a sinful man for serving the Roman authorities and bleeding his own countrymen out of their earnings. . He was consorting with foreigners. He was marginalized because of his occupation. Perhaps he has gotten used to the looks, the side comments, and the insults. Perhaps he wished he were somewhere else doing something else.

Then came the invitation, "Follow me". Did he hear right? Somebody wanted him. Somebody appreciated him. And he was so happy he threw a party at his house and invited his friends, mostly tax collectors like him. And Jesus was seen in the company of sinners. Jesus took risks.

What Jesus did by calling Matthew and dining with sinners was to take another step in the same direction - from heaven to earth, from God to man, from strength to weakness, from omnipotence to vulnerability. Why not from acceptability to marginality? From conventionality to acting against expectations?

What good came out of this encounter? We know what happened to Matthew. He wrote this gospel. He became a disciple. By taking risks, Jesus won Matthew over. Jesus would take more risks up to the cross.

Why risk? The reason is to lift the sinner up. It is to restore the person to his proper place as member of God's family. It is to save. "Healthy people do not need the doctor but sick people do. Go find out what this means." (Mt. 9:12)

Life is not just about being safe, comfortable and secure.

Sometimes one has to take risks -- in order to save.

Action starter: Have you ever helped or saved someone?