-Ryan G. Duns, SJ
We are all familiar with the adage that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." I guess the idea behind it is that at some point we become so settled into our ways, so much a creature of habit, that it's hard if not impossible to learn new ways of doing things, to break ourselves free from a long-established rut.
I wonder if Levi, the tax collector in today's Gospel, held just such an adage. At some point he settled into his life as a tax collector - something of an extortionist in his day - and reckoned it impossible for him to aspire to anything different. Perhaps it was the case that each day he watched people walk by and he listened them speak of this Jesus fellow. Perhaps he even glimpsed this Jesus from his window and felt, deep within his heart, a stirring and a longing...but habit and fear of change quickly dispelled this quiet longing. A raspy voice may well have sounded in the depths of his soul, "What would such a man as that have to do with you? You are a crook. You are a thief. This is the path you have chosen and there's no going back now, so deal with it."
Levi might well have dealt with it until his dying day had it not been for Jesus' incursion into his life. Jesus broke into Levi's life and overturned his world. The days spent listening to people speak of Jesus, the long hours of quiet imagining what it might be like to be a friend of this Jesus, were fulfilled in that moment when Jesus looked into his eyes and invited him to "follow me." Maybe Levi moved so quickly because deep down, in his heart, it is what he had wanted to do for a very long time; maybe he moved so quickly because he knew that, if he didn't, he never would.
I think Lent is that special period of the year when we are able to look into our hearts and take an inventory. The days of fasting and the penance we enact during Lent places us inside the tax-collector's booth with Levi: there, taken out of the mainstream of society, we have time to think on our situation and to get in touch with what we really desire. Lent isn't as much as an endurance contest, trying to see how long we can refrain from eating candy bars or drinking soda; rather, it is a time of growing in patience as we learn what is going on in our hearts.
Today's psalm is one we might wish to inscribe into our hearts: "Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth." Jesus didn't come teaching us doctrines or dogmas - important though they are! Rather, he came and showed us a way, a style of being human that was so radical, so outside of the realm of our sin-stained comprehension, that we killed him because it was so threatening. Levi couldn't have known what was in store for Jesus. He knew only this: that Jesus was willing to enter into Levi's reality, to address him as a human, and to invite him to be his companion. This offer of friendship, this invitation to make Jesus' life and way Levi's life and way, we can describe simply as a moment of grace. Friendship with Jesus is just this: I have chosen to make Jesus' life my life, to take his ways as my ways.
Can an old dog learn new tricks? Canines might have a difficult time of it, but humans certainly do it. The human heart stands always able to be recreated, provided the heart is open. Seize a few quiet moments today to reflect simply: where am I broken? How have I broken others? With these questions pressing on your heart, allow your brokenness to be the tax-collector's window, allowing Jesus to see you looking out longingly, invitingly, and accept the invitation he extends. You might not be able to balance a sugar cube on the end of your nose, but I suspect that you'll soon find yourself capable of greater and greater feats of love and sacrifice, patience and generosity, kindness and joy...amazing grace, indeed.