Mercy and Sacrifice – September 19, 2010
Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 9:1-13
September 19, 2010
In our story from Matthew, we’re told that Jesus has come “to his own city.” Now, Matthew doesn’t name that city here, but as I mentioned before, “his city” was probably Capernaum. Biblical historians believe that was his adopted home town in the time of his ministry. And also, if he “crossed over the sea” and “came to his city,” as it says, Capernaum was most likely because it was on the coast. If he were going to Nazareth as his “own city” he would have had at least a 15 mile walk up into the hills. (From the closest place on the seacoast from Nazareth!)
So all indications are that he had come back to Capernaum. And that’s important because he was just there in Chapter 8. It was there, as we read two weeks ago, that he met the leper and the Roman Centurion. It was there that he had given the people cause to be shocked by his behavior! Well, that “behavior” was about to get worse!
When he arrived, they brought to him a paralyzed man. Those who brought him knew Jesus was someone special. They knew he had spiritual power to heal. And I believe they wanted him to help this man. But Jesus did more than that. And what he did was “too much” for some of them – especially the religious leaders! Remember, those religious leaders were watching him. They weren’t sure what to make of him. And in our reading for today, he gave them further cause to question.
Jesus looked at the paralyzed man, he saw the faith of those who had brought him, and then he said something that, again, had to have sent a gasp through the crowd – like touching the leper or commending the Roman soldier. He said, “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” Why would he say that to a paralyzed man? Sin was not his problem. Or was it? Remember, the prevailing belief at the time was that people with infirmities had those infirmities because they had sinned! God was displeased with them, and therefore they were receiving bad things. “Who sinned?” they would ask Jesus later about a blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s the way they saw it.
So, when Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven, that thought may also have been in the heads of the Scribes who took exception to it. And take exception to it they did! They said he was “blaspheming.” And they were right! Anyone who would presume to do that which only God could do was blaspheming! (Remember, Jesus was who he said he was or he was a blasphemer!) So Jesus took their thoughts further down that road. “Which is easier,” he asked, “to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘rise and walk’?” And in their understanding of sin and punishment, those two things would have gone hand in hand!
Then he said something that would create an even bigger stir. He said, “So you may know that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Rise and walk.” What an amazing scene! And isn’t it interesting that the crowds both “were afraid” and “glorified God.” I’m sure those scribes had other thoughts as well – thoughts of embarrassment and anger! This was an uncomfortable situation, to say the least!
Then there’s a bit of an autobiographical story. Jesus was walking by the tax office of a man named Matthew. And he said, “Follow me.” And the man did. That also had to have caused a gasp to go through the crowds, because the people hated the tax collectors. (How different is that from today!!) Tax collectors were seen as collaborating with the Romans, and they were getting rich off of their own countrymen! And here Jesus was giving this tax collector the same call to be a disciple as he had given the fishermen!
And if that weren’t enough, he went into the house – presumably the house of Matthew, though the text isn’t quite clear on that point. And when he was there “many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus…” Make no mistake here! “Sitting down” and “breaking bread” were a signs of respect and acceptance. And that would have made the people very uncomfortable – in two ways.
First of all they would have had their own discomfort about the situation. It would have been shocking to them for Jesus to associate with this band of sinners. But also they would have had that feeling of discomfort about what the religious leaders would do.” We know that feeling. Someone is doing something wrong, and we worry about what’s going to happen to them!
Sure enough, the Pharisees were watching him. They were “keeping an eye on the situation,” as they would continue to do so throughout his ministry. And now they react. The people had to have been thinking, “he’s gonna get it now!” But the Pharisees don’t confront Jesus – not yet! They ask his disciples. (Maybe they’re trying to discourage them from being disciples!) They ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” That was a very troubling question!
Friends, does it bother you that in their religious lives and practice, they had “institutionalized” the ostracism of certain people? Does it bother you that they had made it acceptable, and even expected, that certain people were to be treated with disdain? It should! And we should be willing to ask ourselves “Do we ever do that?!” “Are there people, or groups of people, who we consider ‘outcast,’ not worthy of God’s love, or outside of God’s expectations for us to love?” “Do we have our version of ‘tax collectors and sinners’ who we shouldn’t be eating with?”
Before we answer that, let’s look at Jesus’ response here. How does this hit us? He said, “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick.” And then put that together with his closing sentence. “For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Think about that. Do we take that to heart? When we reach out to tell people about our faith or our church, do we ever consciously or subconsciously do so only to those who already believe what we believe, or only to those who are in our realm of comfort? Or do we reach out to the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ because they are “in need of a physician?” Do we reach out, not only to those who have already heard, but to those who need to hear?
You see, when we read these stories, when we see the actions of those in the story who we believe are wrong, we need to willing to look at ourselves, and to be challenged in where we too may have had those same reactions and reservations. We need to be honest with ourselves that way.
I want to close today by having us think about the challenge Jesus gave in reaction to the Pharisees’ question. He said, “Go and learn what this means. ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’.” That’s a quote, by the way, from the prophet Hosea. (Hosea 6:6) What does that mean? “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Sacrifice to them, was not just an attitude of self-giving. But that too is important to this thought. Sacrifice to them was an integral part of the practice of their faith! Jesus was emphasizing to them that God sees mercy as more important than that sacrifice. Showing mercy to those in need of mercy is more important that all of the people’s religious convention and ritual!
That’s a huge thing. And it’s what I want to leave you with today. Think about those who might make us uncomfortable if they came through that door. Think about those outside of the faith. Think about those who might even be at odds with what we believe. More than displaying to them the “trappings” or the practices of our faith, we should be displaying to them the love and mercy of God! “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
That’s not easy! It’s much more comfortable for us to deal with people who are like us, and who don’t challenge us in our beliefs or in our associations. It’s much harder to sit with the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus challenges us to do that which is hard. He challenges us to do that which is uncomfortable. He challenges us, by his example, to reach out to those who need God’s love and mercy. He did that when he was here among us. And it made others uncomfortable. It made them indignant. It made them mad. But he did it anyway. We are a continuation of that ministry, a ministry that continues to love the outcasts and the friendless. Think about that in all your encounters with people this week! Ask yourself, “How would Jesus love them?”
“What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
Eternal God, help us to be honest with ourselves, so we can see where we have been exclusive in our faith. Help us to break out of our sometimes closed community, and to have the courage to reach out to those who need to hear and experience your love and mercy. Let the joy and peace of your kingdom be that which others see in us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.