I remember the day, early in his papacy, that Pope Francis said, “I am a sinner” in public. The quote, as we say now, “went viral.” It’s rare to have a public figure admit during an interview or a widely attended speech that s/he has imperfections. We all know that none of us is perfect but admitting it to the world – especially using the word sin to describe our actions – is not a common practice. At first I was dismayed about his admission because I think that religious people tend to focus more on sin than on giftedness and good deeds. I grabbed onto Barbra Streisand’s line that “there are no mistakes, just lessons to be learned” and used it to talk about sin from that perspective. I still think we either overplay our imperfections sometimes or try to hide them by prevaricating (i.e. “skirting around the truth or delaying giving an answer, especially to avoid telling the whole truth”) but being able to follow the Pope’s example can be very freeing. If we are honest enough to offer our true selves to others we may find that we are accepted in spite of ourselves because nobody else is perfect either!
In today’s gospel (MT 9:9-13) we meet St. Matthew, as Jesus approaches him and says, “Follow me.” At this, the Pharisees were indignant because tax collectors (Matthew’s job) were described in the same breath as “sinners.” They asked the disciples why Jesus was associating with such people. I always wish that Jesus hadn’t jumped in to answer that question; I would just like to know what his disciples would have said. But Jesus heard the question and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Pope Francis talks a lot about mercy, sometimes in the same sentence with the word “sinner.” In that way – as in so many more – he seems so close to doing what Jesus did, in being who Jesus was, to teach us all the compassionate reach of God to all of us. Ought we then do the same for one another? For ourselves?