Saturday, June 7, 2008

4 Pentecost

June 8, 2008

Hosea 5.15-6.6; Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus doing several things he, as a good Jew, following the Law, should not be doing. He is not only talking with tax collectors, he is sitting down to eat with one. To truly understand what Matthew is getting at here, we have to understand how what Jesus did was viewed as unclean in his time.

First of all, we are told Jesus is not only speaking with a tax collector (and not only speaking, but calling him to be a follower), he enters the home of one and sits down at table and eats with him. A tax collector would have been unclean because, first of all, he handled Roman money. Roman money had on it images of the Roman emperor, who was considered a god. So, by Jewish Law, it was unclean because it was pagan. The tax collector would have been considered unclean because he handled these pagan coins, these pagan idols.

But he also would have been considered worse than that by most Jews. Because he handled the Roman money, he was also considered a traitor. He was, in a sense, working for Rome, the occupying force in the country. It would be similar (though not exactly) like a Norwegian working for the Nazis during the occupation. Because the tax collector was considered unclean, his house would have been unclean and especially the food he served would have been unclean.

And to make matters worse, he wasn’t just eating with a tax collector. He was eating with other sinners. Although the Gospel doesn’t tell us what these other sinners were guilty of, they no doubt were guilty of something bad to be considered sinners.

So, for Jesus to enter his house, to eat food served to him in that house, would have been a major faux pas. Religiously, socially, Jesus did everything he wasn’t supposed to do. He was, in a sense, swimming against the social and religious current of his day.

But Jesus, in the face of glaring social and religious criticism, does an incredible thing. He quotes Hosea. He says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What a beautiful statement!

And it’s an even more beautiful statement because it’s really an echo of what we want to hear from our God. This is what we want to hear from God. Mercy is what we want from God. And mercy is something people seemed to seek from Jesus.

In the Gospels, we find people constantly coming to Jesus, asking for mercy. We find, in today’s reading, a leader of the synagogue coming to him, seeking mercy. We find the woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, coming to him, seeking mercy. And in both cases, mercy is what they received. We don’t hear anything in these stories about whether or not they deserved this mercy. Nor do we hear anything about what happened to them after this mercy was granted to them. But I have no doubt, that in each case, their lives were transformed. They were not the same people they were before the mercy of Jesus came to them.

And that is what mercy does. It changes us. It makes us different than who we were before.

I have been reading a book recently called Surprised by Hope by the eminent Anglican theologian and Bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright. The book is truly a fascinating one. I say fascinating, but I mean challenging. It’s not a book I simply can read in one sitting, nor is it a book I can read straight through from beginning to end. It’s a book in which I am able to read only a few chapters at a time before setting it aside. After a few weeks go by, I pick it up again and read a few more chapters.

I have found myself challenged in that, at moments, I disagree with Bishop Wright, while at other moments I agree wholeheartedly with him. To give you a clue of what I mean, the subtitle of the book is: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church. Certainly the book has challenged my entire view of what awaits us after we die. One of the more fascinating sections in the book is when Wright confronts the notion of purgatory. Wright systematically disassembles the notion of a purgatory that awaits us following our death.

In that section on Purgatory, Wright shares a view by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger is now much better known as Pope Benedict XVI. Wright references a view Ratzinger has regarding I Corinthians chapter 3, when Paul writes,

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

The fire here, according to Ratzinger, is in fact, Jesus himself. Jesus is the fire of judgment. Jesus is the fire that burns away the wood, the hay, the straw of our sins. He burns away everything that is dry and lifeless. And, in this fire, he purifies us. This fire is truly the fire of mercy.

Throughout the Gospels, we find people coming to Jesus asking for mercy. Even we, in the church, do it. Probably one of the most famous prayers is the so-called “Jesus prayer,” which is simply an ancient prayer from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In all of this, we find mercy to be an essential part of our relationship with Christ. Jesus really is the mercy of God. Everything about Jesus—the fact that in Jesus we find that God has come among us as one of us, has lived like us and has died like we will die, and, in doing so, has done away with our greatest fear—death—all this only goes to show how truly Jesus is the mercy of God.

So, when we hear that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” that is no small statement. God truly does desire mercy. And because God desires mercy, we find mercy. We find mercy fully and completely in the person of Jesus.

In Jesus, we find mercy with a Face, with a Voice. In Jesus, we find true mercy—a mercy that comes to us as a burning all-consuming Fire. In Jesus, we find true mercy in the purified people we become after that consuming fire has burned away all that needed to be burned away in our lives.

So, let us, like God, desire mercy and not sacrifice. Let us look to Jesus for mercy. Let us pray to him:

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And let us feel that mercy overtake us with an all-consuming fire.

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