Weekly Seeds: Mercy
Sunday, June 11, 2023
Second Sunday after Pentecost | Year A
Merciful God, help us to go, learn, demonstrate, and proclaim mercy over sacrifice. Amen.
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
9 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.
10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. 20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 23 When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.
All readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 12:1-9 and Psalm 33:1-12 • Hosea 5:15-6:6 and Psalm 50:7-15 • Romans 4:13-25 • Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
What is mercy?
Do you seek mercy and under what circumstances?
When do you withhold mercy from others?
How is mercy different from sacrifice?
Why is mercy more desirable for Jesus than sacrifice?
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
The gospel passage is situated in a larger section filled with Jesus performing miracles. The preceding section included the Sermon on the Mount, which may have been one continuous teaching or a coalescing of the proclamations of Jesus into an orderly account. All of the gospel writers make structural choices in arranging their material. Matthew begins by identifying who Jesus is through his birth account and genealogy. Then we find out the message he conveys through teaching. Then comes the demonstration of who he is and the forces that rise against him that Jesus overcomes. Finally, the disciples who have journeyed with him are commissioned to carry the charge forward to the world.
Matthew’s gospel has often been understood to speak to an inside audience. He refers consistently to the Hebrew Scriptures explicitly and implicitly. He is particularly attentive to the connections to the prophecy of Isaiah and the ministry of Jesus. He names Jesus as Son of God, Son of Man, and Son of David. The Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount draw parallels with Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. And like Moses, Jesus employs miraculous acts in the liberation of God’s beloved.
Miracle stories function to demonstrate God’s power in a Roman world in which inhabitants experienced the powers of numerous gods and goddesses. They also manifest compassion in a context in which many understood ailments to result from sin, the devil and demons, angry gods, and hostile people. God’s empire rules over all forces in compassionate and transformative ways. The emphasis on somatic wholeness anticipates the final transformation effected by God’s reign (11:2–6). In the meantime, healings and exorcisms enact the blessing of God’s empire on the poor (5:3), transforming destructive economic circumstances (no work, poverty), social isolation, political oppression, and religious marginalization.
Matthew’s audience may be the insider, but his narrative brings the outsider into the circle. The Son of David goes out to encounter the world, including the gentiles, the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and the religious faithful. The passage opens with the calling of Matthew (likely not the gospel writer), a tax collector. Jesus not only reaches for the lost and the lowly, he turns toward the privileged and powerful. Tax collectors in this time held a particular and despicable role in Roman society and governmental infrastructure:
Another discussion of the meaning of discipleship closes this second set of deeds of power. It hinges on the question of who can be included. Who can be called to be a disciple? The case in point is Matthew the tax collector. As a tax collector he is an unlikely choice. To be a tax collector for Rome was to be a collaborator with the oppressor. Tax collectors were assumed to be thieves as well as collaborators, collecting more than was required and profiting from the power of their positions. On top of all this, tax collectors were “unclean” by virtue of their continual dealings with Gentiles and Gentile goods. Yet here is Jesus calling Matthew the tax-collector to follow him. Jesus is calling sinners to be disciples (9:13).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reframes the kindom of God with his teaching. In the miracle chapters, he does so with his actions and through the recipients of his attention and blessing. In this text, Matthew is the only person, outside Jesus, to be named. The others are identified by their affliction or position, such as the leader of the synagogue or the hemorrhaging woman. Matthew, the tax collector, stands in for all of us who are called by God into transforming from who we were and what we did into this new kindom life. Matthew becomes a protege and partner in the ministry. The interview and onboarding process is simple. Jesus sees him and says, “Follow me.” Matthew does. It’s that simple for him and that simple for us. Of course, simple is not synonymous with easy.
They go to eat because the Son of Man needs sustenance, is subject to human hunger, and desires companionship. Even in the midst of these tremendous acts of divine intervention, Matthew the gospel writer does not let us ignore the humanity of Jesus. The Pharisees question Jesus as they like to do. This seems to be an interrogation, even if other accounts show some Pharisees to have genuine curiosity when inquiring about Jesus’s thoughts, actions, and relationships. Jesus’ response strongly suggests that he prioritizes the sinner over the righteous, but who he places in each category may be surprising.
[quote] As the story unfolds it seems that Jesus is not much concerned with matters of insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean. He goes about touching lepers, healing Gentiles, and eating with sinners and tax collectors. Any one of these could be seen as a violation of expectations and codes concerning purity. Jesus is concerned rather with the weightier matters of the law which have mostly to do with mercy and compassion. He quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Something new is going on here that calls for “fresh wineskins” (9:17).
He expands the Hosea quote in order to give the Pharisees an assignment: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It’s the “going and learning” Jesus commands that probably was most offensive to this group known for their emphasis on being elite with their piety. The Pharisees were a religious group committed to a strict adherence to the full Book of the Law–the sacrificial system. In that one sentence, Jesus challenges their priorities and deconstructs their view of themselves as the arbiter of knowledge (learning) and praxis (going).
Broadly speaking, the Law offers reconciliation to God and neighbor through retribution and repair by sacrifice. The Law then seeks satisfaction of obligation and harm. Mercy seeks a different way based on compassion and forgiveness. At the same time, as Jesus demonstrates, mercy facilitates restoration, repentance, and wholeness. Mercy acknowledges that healing companions with justice in the kindom of God.
The healing of the synagogue leader’s daughter and the woman with a flow of blood (whom Jesus addresses as “daughter”) are here intertwined—a healing within a healing. On the way to restoration of one, Jesus restores the other. In both healing stories Jesus will violate ritual purity customs. These are not meaningless regulations; they are a matter of protecting personal and communal health. Washing hands before eating, avoiding contact with what could be contaminated or disease-bearing; these were deeply ingrained and wise practices. Nevertheless, in the space of these few verses (9:18–26), Jesus will be touched by a hemorrhaging woman and will touch a dead body. He does not protect himself, but extends himself for those in need of healing. It is not because ritual purity is unimportant but because ritual purity is secondary to the demands of mercy and compassion.
In their teaching, Jesus assures his audience that he does not seek to abandon or abolish the Law but to fulfill it. In other words, the Law serves a purpose greater than itself–not sacrifice, but mercy. As a result, the particulars of the Law may be set aside in service of mercy, but mercy can never be set aside for the Law for a just and righteous outcome.
So who was Jesus talking about when he said he came to call the sinners? Who, in truth, needed to turn back toward God? Who is really sick and needs to be made well? Was it the one working for the empire or the one who thought they were already right with God because of their idolatry of the Law?
It’s not an accident that after the instruction to go and learn about mercy that a leader of the synagogue, likely a peer of those interrogating Jesus, arrives with humble desperation to plead for his daughter’s life–to plead for mercy. Merciful Jesus does not badger or berate the Pharisees, he simply responds to the need. On the journey, another with a need reaches them, and again, mercy flows from Jesus with healing power. No sacrifices were necessary. No rites or rituals were engaged; faith did the work. Finally, Jesus reaches the girl and takes her hand. Mercy lifts her up.
Mercy isn’t fair. It also is not arbitrary. Mercy is a choice…of love, compassion, and faithfulness. Mercy brought Christ into the world, and Mercy sends us out into the world to embrace, embody, and proclaim the kindom of God.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out that we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything. He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about what’s important in life and what’s not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughed at times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I’d stayed way past my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. I’d been there three hours.
I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, “Don’t worry, Bryan, don’t worry. Come back, okay….”
I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring, something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him toward the door roughly. I didn’t like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smile until, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resist the officer’s shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. I watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, but then he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritone voice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped his pushing.
I’m pressing on, the upward way
New heights I’m gaining, every day
Still praying as, I’m onward bound
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in the church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction. It took a moment before the officer recovered and resumed pushing him out the door. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, Henry almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. He had to waddle to keep his balance, but he kept on singing. I could hear him as he went down the hall:
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song as a precious gift. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.
—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
For further reflection:
“There is a God, there always has been. I see him here, in the eyes of the people in this [hospital] corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him… there is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He will forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need. I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book says He is.” ― Khaled Hosseini
“The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.” ― Sue Monk Kidd
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” ― Abraham Lincoln
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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