Here’s What Mercy Means

Since the first of the year, we’ve been making a high-flying trip over the Old Testament of the Bible.

The overarching story of God with us that we’ve heard thus far boils down to this: The God of all Creation has no patience for chaos and disorder, sin and brokenness – behaviors and situations that stand in the way of the Lord’s hopes of redeeming the world and drawing a people together unto himself. And those who run afoul of God and God’s desires risk severe punishment.

God sends a long line of prophets to tell the people to straighten up and fly right, but the message of the prophets fails to take hold in any meaningful, long-lasting way. As a result, the people flock to God when they’re in trouble, but when times are good, God fades into the background of daily living, ignored and darn-near forgotten.

Yet, despite our wandering eyes and rebellious hearts, God remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ever longing to write heaven’s promises upon our hearts – so much so that, in light of the failure of the prophets, God comes to earth in the humanity of Jesus to deliver firsthand a heavenly call to repentance and an absolute assurance of forgiveness for those who become Christ’s disciples and follow his examples of word and deed.

Thus, this morning, we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New – from the First Testament to the Second – and a Gospel lesson on how to become one of Christ’s disciples. And it begins with a simple, two-word invitation from none other than Jesus himself: “Follow me.”

Listen and watch for the word of the Lord, as the story of God with us continues in chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel during the early days of Christ’s earthly ministry.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

But when he heard this, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)

Why on earth does Matthew get up?

What stirs the reviled tax collector to rise from his desk and follow Jesus?

After all, at least as far as the text is concerned, Matthew doesn’t know Jesus from Adam!

Does Jesus know Matthew? Well, it’s hard to say.

Our only clue is that the story seems to take place in Jesus’s hometown. So maybe, as a boy growing up, Jesus daily sees Matthew sitting there in his tax office, surrounded by bags and bags of coins collected from disgruntled taxpayers. Yet, while Jesus might know Matthew by face and reputation, the two men don’t appear to be acquainted before now.

But even if Matthew is a total stranger, Jesus well knows how his friends and neighbors feel about tax collectors. In the eyes of the locals, tax collectors are greedy, pocket-lining collaborators in league with a corrupt government and charged with squeezing taxes from their own Jewish people on behalf of the dreaded Romans who loom large and in charge over biblical lands.

So, when he calls Matthew, Jesus knows that doing so confirms what his critics and naysayers already suspect: Jesus chooses the “wrong” people. Jesus had no standards. He’ll hang around with just about anyone! Already in hot water for daring to forgive sins, Jesus now finds a close friend in someone whose daily work is widely regarded as sinful.

Why Matthew gets up remains shrouded in mystery – just as with Peter, James, and John, who leave behind their fishing boats and nets when Jesus strolls along their stretch of shoreline. And none of the former fishermen ever looks back. Therefore, there must be something so captivating about Jesus’s presence that people respond to him in ways even they cannot explain.

Matthew’s reasons surely are personal, and perhaps he holds his cards close to his vest and never tells anybody why he did what he did in accepting a simple, two-word invitation to “follow me.”

Then suddenly, the scene shifts from Matthew’s now-empty tax office to a meal in someone’s house.

Whose house?

Maybe it was Matthew’s.

He’d be about the only one likely to invite his fellow tax collectors over for dinner. Who else would invite them? Given their miserable reputations, tax collectors aren’t exactly A-list dinner guests, and it’s hard to imagine they’d be eagerly welcome to break bread in too many places!

Nevertheless, an important takeaway lies among the unanswered questions and deep mysteries of it all: Being called by Jesus to “follow me” always ends up being a communal affair.

The call of Jesus is intimately linked to community – a radically different sense of community that raises more than a few eyebrows among those with vested interests in maintaining the long-established and well-maintained pecking order of society.

Since Jesus breaks the norms for hanging out in polite company, let’s shake up the guest list even more.

Jesus spends much of his time eating and drinking with sinners, so let’s put together a guest list for a “sinners table” of people whose occupations or mere existence mark them among the American caste of the untouchables.

Invited to our dinner in the party room of, say, the Waukon City Club or Fiesta Villarta, might be a child abuser, a garbage collector, a young black man with AIDS, a Hispanic chicken-plucker, a teen-age crack addict, a gay or transgendered middle-schooler, and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers.

Did we miss anyone? Anyone else who’s considered “unclean” because they do something dirty for a living or behave in ways that polite company deems immoral? Well, we probably should add a few government officials from both sides of the political aisle to round out this motley collection of rogues that we’ve invited out to dinner.

As to the peanut gallery of nearby restaurant critics who always focus on insignificant details and sneer at Jesus’s choice of dinner guests, let’s, in our casting of this story, let the local ministerial association meeting at this very same restaurant assume that role. Or a women’s group going out to lunch after a morning meeting, or a church choir going out for pie and coffee after rehearsal.

Whatever group you choose, the point is that they’re “in” and the rest of the world is “out.”

They’re all clean and well dressed; reasonably attractive with straight, white teeth and clean fingernails, and when the server brings their food, they hold hands and pray. They’re all perfectly nice people – well respected in their community, but they hardly can eat their food or enjoy their drinks but for staring at the eccentric crowd of strangers, outcasts, and ne’re-do-wells sitting at the far table.

Without trying, the group we’ve gathered at our table clearly draws attention. The chicken-plucker is still wearing her white hairnet from work, and the garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict cannot seem to find his mouth with the spoon. But none of them is a deal-breaker – except for Jesus, who’s sitting there enjoying himself as if nothing’s wrong and everything’s fine.

The real head-turner would be the unusual sight of the two tables getting together – if the people from the ministerial association or the businessmen’s Bible study saunter over to Jesus and ask, “Hey, do you mind if we move our tables next to yours, so we can get to know one another better?”

For even if we can stop staring, even if we smile politely from afar with the passive-aggressive “Midwest nice” that oftentimes defines our social behaviors and interactions, it’s just not the same as eating at the same table. And Jesus wants everybody at the table. But some don’t want to sit with Jesus as long as “sinners” are with him.

Yet, our lesson isn’t just an all-are-welcome, kum-ba-ya kind of story.

It’s not the same as Jesus’s parables about going out onto the highways and byways and peering into the community’s nooks and crannies to get people to come to a banquet. Jesus seems to change the subject when he realizes the pious, religious types are complaining about his dinner partners. “Those who are well have no need for physicians, but those who are sick,” Jesus counters back.

But then Jesus switches from defense to offensive: “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus continues. “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

Jesus is quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea, and their messages are identical: Showing mercy and compassion, without hesitation, to those whom Jesus will later describe as “the least of these” is far-more important than meaningless sacrifice or empty ritual. If you don’t show mercy and compassion, then all the religious rites and Sunday church services in the world won’t bring you any closer to God.

Jesus concludes by saying, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I suppose we could interpret Jesus’s words to mean: “Then go out and sin to your heart’s content! The more you sin, the more Jesus will want you at his table!”

But that’s not quite right either. To unpack this one, we need to flip back a few Gospel chapters to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

That sermon begins with blessing, and among Jesus’s blessings are these words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” followed by “Blessed are the merciful for, they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:6-7)

Mercy and righteousness are side by side – righteous meaning right, right relationship with God; mercy and compassion hanging on right relationship with neighbors and strangers. This right relatedness is crucially important for Jesus. Indeed, he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

But wait, we just heard Jesus say that he’s “come not to call the righteous but sinners.” Does Jesus fully support righteousness as a concept but want nothing to do with righteous people? No, not really.

Back there in the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled, that is, they will eat at his table. They’re hungering for right relationship, and they full-well know that they haven’t arrived. And they further their frank self-assessment in admitting their own need, their deep hunger, their desperate longing.

That more than likely is what the Holy Spirit taps into when she stirs Matthew from his tax table. He’s hungry for relationship with God and thirsty for water in the parched places of his soul. When Jesus calls him, Matthew feels the hand of blessing on his head and the Holy Spirit of God in Christ on his heart.

It was personal, yes, that call and that sense of blessing, but it certainly was not private.

Soon Matthew’s house fills with other lost, malnourished souls hungering and thirsting for God. In their heart of hearts, they know the meaning of mercy, because at long last, they finally have been welcomed into an accepting community.

Right relationship with the Lord and with his people looks like a giant wheel with many spokes. Think in terms of a wheel on a bicycle or an old, wooden farm wagon – a big, round hub at the center and spokes moving out toward the rim.

Jesus is at the center of the wheel, and you, I, and everyone else are on the rim, each of us finding our place at the end of a spoke. The Lord longs to draw us in and hold us close. The spokes that are wide apart at the rim almost touch as we move toward the center. Which means that there’s no way to be drawn to Jesus at the center without moving closer to one another.

Doing that is never easy, and it may be that the tax collectors and other greasy sinners will have to be the ones to make the first move, because the “good people” sitting at the supposedly best table have no clue about how and where to begin. I don’t know which table you’re at, and I’m never exactly sure where I’m seated.

Either way, inviting people to share in the blessing of community pretty much sums up what it means to go learn the meaning of mercy, the importance of compassion, and the foolishness of ritual.

And that invitation from Jesus, that invitation into community, is, I think, why Matthew gets up. And the same invitation to create and nurture community surely must be the result of our getting up and following Jesus, too.

Ancient words, ever true, changing me and changing you! Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, May 22, 2022. It is part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Barbara K. Lundblad, and Barbara Brown Taylor inform the message.

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