As I write this it is Saturday, March 4, 2017; the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. The Gospel Reading for today is the story of Levi the tax collector from Luke 5:27-32: The Call of Levi, as it is sometimes called. The narrative is a familiar one. Jesus calls over the tax collector, Levi. Like all tax collectors of this time they are a reviled lot, but Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” What ensues after is left to the imagination, but we are told that, later, Jesus dines with him and other tax collectors. The Pharisees then reproached Jesus for associating with sinners, after which Jesus responds with the oft cited retort, “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 common parlance this is the old problem of not “preaching to the converted.”
That narrative is certainly at play, but I think there is more going on here. After my reading of this passage I engaged in an Ignatian meditation, the kind where one imaginatively places themselves in the scene. The details of my meditation are unimportant, but I would like to share a few things. At the banquet, Jesus, Levi, and the other tax collectors and sinners all share a meal, conversation, and laughter. They are there, plainly, in their humanity. They are there in their simplicity and even vulnerability.
I was then immediately reminded of something I had experienced or felt when I was in my very early twenties on a few but poignant instances. At that time I had drifted away from the Church, but looking back now I can see that I had had experiences for years that, I believe, can only be identified as spiritual, perhaps calling me back or even keeping me connected. These particular experiences in my early twenties, in their seeming banality, all went something like this: I would be at the local mall having a bite in the dining area. There would always be someone else eating alone as I was. I couldn’t help but watch them, the way they were just there chowing down, in, what I can only describe, their simple humanity. Some of these souls I saw were tough looking guys. Others looked as lonely there and then as I imagined them as being through much of their life. Some were beautiful or handsome. Some very plain and a bit gawky. But the thing that united these occurrences – and I stress there were only a handful – was the phenomenon I observed that I can only call “the tender act of satiation,” and the accompanying feeling I had each time, which was that I was witness to, and perhaps even enjoining, human weakness. This is very hard to explain without sounding sentimental, but I truly believe there was more going on here than some projecting of my own sentimentality as a flaneur of regular people doing an ordinary act. There was in all those episodes, as it were, something else speaking to me, and whatever that was, was brought out vividly through today’s Gospel reading. The tender act of satiation, the feeding of a hunger, is in many respects the dissipating of an ongoing or repeated weakness.
Our hungers and fragility are universal. We often attempt to cover them over with veneers of toughness, or we try to escape them in all kinds of unfortunate ways. But then, when we are just ourselves, simply and plainly, we remedy this hunger.
Sometimes at Mass or during holy hour I have a similar experience to those I had in the concessions area at the Mall. I see ordinary people doing an ordinary thing, which is truly extraordinary. They are feeding their spiritual hunger.
What was Levi hungry for? I’d like to believe that when he dined with Jesus he needed and was given more than the food served. And how much more rich and meaningful the laughter and companionship must have been that evening. The Pharisees only saw a scoundrel in Levi; Christ saw someone vulnerable and lovable despite, or even because of, their sins.