Matthew 9:9-13

Another of our bite-sized sayings from Jesus. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Words well known to those that Jesus addressed – the Pharisees would have recognised them as the punchline of the prophet Hosea’s lament in Hosea chapter 6:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?

   What shall I do with you, O Judah?

Your love is like a morning cloud,

   like the dew that goes away early.

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,

   and my judgement goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,

   the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

Words well known to the Pharisees, not least because what the prophet had to say was right up their street.

Much of Hosea was a call to repentance, a call to obedience to the law of God, to reject the temptation to worship the Gods of other nations that seemed more powerful.

Exactly what the Pharisees were on about. Resist the temptation of the Gods of the empire. Hold the line. Stay true to your worship of Yahweh.

And there’s nothing in that that Jesus wouldn’t have completely agreed with, either. He just came to a different conclusion about what it meant in practice.

The Pharisees saw Jesus mixing with tax-collectors (and other ‘sinners’, but especially tax collectors like Matthew). Tax-collectors, of course, were those who had chosen to work for the Romans, to collect tax on behalf of the pagan empire. They had, in the eyes of the Pharisees (and the majority of the population), chosen the other side; and by doing so, they had rejected Yahweh in favour of the Roman gods.

And the Pharisees would perhaps have quoted back at Jesus Hosea’s words:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,

   and my judgement goes forth as the light.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on so much. But, reading from the same scriptures, they came to fundamentally different conclusions about what it was that really mattered to God. The scriptures that they were reading didn’t give them simple, clear, answers. So they read the same words, and came to different conclusions.

I don’t think that it’s a stretch to suggest that the same happens today. Different readings, giving priority to different themes or passages, leading people to very different expressions of faith.

It’s one reason why I’m immediately on guard whenever I hear phrases along the lines of “the Bible clearly says” – for if it is so clear, how is it that people of good faith and honest intent don’t see it? Within the scriptures there are many different strands of thought, ideas, revelations, and everyone makes some sort of choice as to which they privilege – and we should be honest enough to admit that that includes us.

I don’t think there’s much support in the Bible for the absolute relativism of “you can have your truth, I’ll have mine” attitude. But what we hold as a true reading of the scriptures, we should hold lightly, prepared to learn a better way; for it suggests that the truth is more likely to be found in the struggle, in the argument, than in any proposition. That is the way of the Hebrew thinkers; the picture the Old Testament scriptures paint is not a clear portrait of God, but a great argument about God.

So we read Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees in that light. That the author is showing an audience who knew the arguments that existed within the Jewish tradition where Jesus stood. Which of the strands of thought within the faith did Jesus choose to privilege.

And here, as in other places, we see Jesus making that choice. In Hosea chapter 6, where others might emphasize “I have hewn them”, “my judgement goes forth”, Jesus’ eyes are drawn to the next phrase: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.

When you read through Hosea you get an image of a people who are trying to buy their way back into God’s good graces:

With their flocks and herds they shall go

   to seek the Lord,

but they will not find him;

The religious systems have been turned into a transaction with God; when you need God’s blessing, you bring your sacrifice in the prescribed way, and you buy it. It was an idea that was common in the worship of the gentile nations, that the Gods were to be bought, or appeased, whether by the right sacrifices or the right actions or the right words.

Your offerings to your God were, in a sense, just the cost of doing business; the cost of having some sort of divine power in your camp.

And I suspect most of the Pharisees would have rejected that way of thinking just as firmly as Jesus did. They saw obedience to God, in many ways, as we would – something done out of gratitude, not to buy favour, or more, something done out of the very nature of the relationship: “you will be my people, and I will be your God”. God is not to be won over by sacrifices.

But, Jesus suggests, they have not yet understood the rest of Hosea’s phrase: I desire mercy.

This, it seems to me, is what Jesus tells us he is seeing in these words: this is what makes sense of, justifies, his decision to break bread with ‘tax collectors and sinners’.

Jesus leads those who criticise him through it. It is the sick, he says, who need a doctor, not the healthy.

With that in your mind, he says, think again about Hosea’s words.

I desire Mercy. The giving of another chance.

In a way, it’s what that doctor is seeking to do; to give another chance at life to one who might not otherwise have it.

Mercy is, at its heart, not treating someone with the harshness, the rejection, the condemnation, the penalty, that would be justified by their past actions.

It is mercy that declares that we are not defined by that which is worst about us. That looks at the tax-collector, a traitor to their nation and their community, at declares that there is more to them than that; that they need not be defined by the mistakes of their past.

It is mercy that looks at us, and sees that thing that we desperately hide, and says “That isn’t who you are. It is part of who you are, part of your story, but you are so much more than that.”

And then Jesus moves to his ambiguous punchline: ‘For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

On their surface, those words present a problem; it seems as if Jesus is saying that some – perhaps even his critics – don’t need what he has to offer. That he is calling those who have strayed back into the faith, that for those who never strayed no more is asked than that they be open to their return.

It’s pretty common – and I think fair – to read a little more in these words: to suggest that the Pharisees would be able to acknowledge that there is no truly righteous person, that they too have their sin, and to hear Jesus as challenging them: as if to say: “that doctor can’t help you if you don’t admit you are sick”.

But perhaps there is something more here.

That Jesus has come to call the sinners, because that is where the mercy of God can be made known.

That seeing the one sent by God welcoming those who were fine, or at least managed to give the impression of being fine, didn’t say anything powerful about God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace. Even the gentiles do that.

But seeing God welcome the broken, the sinner, the rebellious, the rejected: that says something. That gets noticed.

And the obvious conclusion might be that we are to do the same: that we need to make sure that our welcome is not for the nice, the good, the easy.

But I wonder if there is another, more difficult, conclusion that we might be challenged by. If we ask the question “How does our life show the love of God? How does our life testify to God’s radical grace, God’s generous mercy?” we will rightly say that our lives show that love, that grace, that mercy, when we offer it to others.

But perhaps even more so, our lives might show the incredible generosity of the welcome of God if we were willing to let it be seen in the fact that God welcomes us.

The Bible paints almost all its great figures warts and all. Paul refers to “sinners, of whom I am the worst”.

There’s a line in the musical Wicked – “there’s no one celebrated as the rehabilitated”. And I wonder if we might need to find the courage, the vulnerability, to let it be seen that that is true of us. To reject the incredible social – and Churchy – pressure to look like we’ve got it together. Because to allow people to see that God has welcomed us despite our brokenness, we have to be willing to let them see our brokenness.

Perhaps that might mean they too could admit to their need, in a way the Pharisees found so hard. Perhaps that might make the grace and mercy of God seem like a meaningful reality that they might need.