“I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

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 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, he 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.”

I have been working on this text (and another from Luke 14) for a few weeks now, in preparation for my sermon Sunday. It helps me to “think outloud,” so I will do that here. Here are some points I am considering raising from this text:

1> This story is about Jesus’ authority and the legitimacy of his mission. It would be easy to dismiss Jesus. After all who is this man? Can anything good come from Nazareth? Who is his father? He is not from noble birth (at least not on the surface). What is his occupation? He does not “come from money.” What are his religious credentials? He has not been schooled in “proper tradition.” What is his political status? He is not favorable of human power. But he has authority. This entire section of scripture is reinforcing that fact over and over. Beginning in Matthew 8:1 (just after Jesus steps off the “mount” to begin his ministry of action and compassion) we are struck with a series of compelling stories that beg the question, “Who is this man?!” From 8:1 – 9:38, Jesus touches lepers and heals them, performs other miracles displaying his power to heal, makes radical claims of who he is and where he is from and commands many to follow him (8:18–22), calms a treacherous storm, goes to forbidden “enemy” territory and casts out legions of demons, heals a paralytic, gives authoritative instructions on spiritual disciplines and their significance (such as fasting – 9:14-17), resurrects a dead girl to life, scoffs at death, and cures a chronic illness (9:18-26), cures blindness and heals a mute. “Wow!” is the correct response! “Who is this man?” Matthew would have us believe it is the long awaited Messiah of Israel. Matthew would also have us follow him. This story in particular (of Jesus at a party with Matthew and other “sinners”) is also about authority. The Pharisees want to know on what authority he dines with sinners and tax collectors, thereby defiling himself (according to the law). But Jesus is the new Moses. He bears the law. And unlike Moses, he does not have the law in hand when he comes off the mountain – he IS the law. Now, to live faithfully according to God’s law, is to do as he does – to follow him. And what the “law-keeping” Pharisees have forgotten is that sacrifice does not trump mercy. Mercy trumps sacrifice. Reinforcing his authority as the “law-in-the-flesh” (or the Word-made-flesh) he tells them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not, sacrifice.'”

2> Following Jesus in this world means a redefining of social and religious boundaries. In this section of scripture to which our text belongs, Jesus does the unthinkable and touches a leper. It is of profound theological significance that he “touches” the leper. Stanley Hauerwas helps us here:

“Jesus not only chooses to heal the leper, he does so by touching him, something people would not do for fear they might contract the disease. But Jesus touches this leper, and the leper is immediately cleansed. Jesus’ touching the leper has invited some to read this story in a sentimental fashion – like Jesus, we need to be ready to reach out and touch someone. It is not a bad thing to reach out and touch someone, but there is nothing sentimental about what happened in this encounter between Jesus and the leper, for what Jesus did for the leper was a deed of power that only he could do. Matthew tells us that Jesus had begun to heal as a part of his ministry in Galilee (Matt. 4:23), but now the power manifest in the healing ministry will attract the attention of those threatened by the display of such power.

Jesus cures the leper because the leper asks him to do so. Jesus does not perform cures to attract attention. Therefore, he commands the leper to tell no one what he has done, but to show the priests he has been cured. Jesus expects the leper to keep the law of Lev. 14 requiring that he be examined by the priests before he is allowed back into society. That the leper will not tell anyone what Jesus has done suggests the difficulty that Jesus’ healing ministry presents. Jesus cannot help but display the power that is his, but those who would follow him only because he is a person of power will fail to understand the kind of Lord he is. The controversies that the healings occasion force those he heals (and us) to recognize that following this leader will not be easy.”

Controversy. I hate controversy. I cannot stand to upset people. Yet, I have chosen, like you to follow the most controversial figure in human history. One who’s power threatens those who think they are in control. One who upset’s religious rule-keeping. One who turns over the tables of our expectations of who God is. One who is not the “good little Jewish boy” for “being a good little Jewish boy and saying your prayers at night does not get you nailed to a cross.” Therefore, it is costly to follow this Jesus. We find ourselves touching lepers. And that isn’t the hard part – reaching out and touching someone. The difficulty, rather, is found in how relationships in our securely constructed world come crumbling down and become redefined. This is weighty stuff – following Jesus. The cost is high. But, Matthew would still have us follow him. Indeed Matthew himself leaves his tax booth and follows this man. For the cost of not following is ultimately higher than the cost of following.

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