One night in 1935, Fiorello H La Guardia, the Mayor of New York turned up at a night court in one of the poorest towns of his city. He dismissed the judge and took his seat. One case involved an elderly woman who was caught stealing bread to feed her grandchildren. La Guardia said “I’ve got to punish you 10 dollars or 10 days in jail for the crime you committed”. Then he looked at all in the courtroom.
He put 10 dollars into his hat paying the fine on behalf the poor lady and then fined everyone in the court saying “Each of you are fined 50 cents each for living in a city so indifferently where a poor lady has to steal bread so that she could feed her grandchildren”. The hat went around. The lady paid the fine but went home with a smile on her face and 47.50 dollars more in hand.
It takes courage and conviction to take a step down from our echelons of power and position and move with the poor, the needy the socially ostracized. Pope John Paul II said “it is impossible to go on living in an island of luxury surrounded by an ocean of suffering.” The most painful kind of suffering is not material poverty or sickness or disease but the feeling not being loved by others or the feeling of being isolated by others. Mother Teresa said the worst disease is the disease of not loving others.
When Jesus encounters Mathew at the tax collectors office, he looks compassionately at him and invites him to follow him. For Mathew it was a life changing experience. When all others looked down upon him and branded him a sinner, Jesus had mercy on him. Jesus ridiculed the hypocrisy of his time where he found some people increasingly pre-occupied with sacrifice and rituals but less compassionate towards others. Quoting prophet Hosea, Jesus says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). In the Old Testament, the prophets vehemently criticized people for being merciless and for their hypocrisy in worship. Jesus says “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘these people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me.”
All our sacrifice, worship and ritual will be in vain if we cannot look with mercy and compassion upon others. Worship finds its true meaning when you and I reach out to the one in need of love and compassion. Our praise to God will be sweet-sounding when there are both, love of God and love of neighbor in our hearts.
Fr. Adolf Washington