I Desire Mercy
Jesus called Matthew to follow him: Matthew, a despised tax collector, one who collaborated with the Roman occupiers of Judea. One who would have been part of the outcasts of his society, linked with sinners, who upright people would not associate with. Jesus followed this by eating with many tax collectors and sinners, presumably connections of Matthew. Naturally, this caused some upset among the more upstanding members of the community. Jesus’ response? “It is not the well who need a doctor but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. For I came not to call the righteous but sinners”. (see Matthew 9:9-13).
And it struck me: how often do we pass over this passage? For we know God accepts sinners (it’s one of the basic facts of our faith) and we don’t practice animal sacrifice anymore (so presumably aren’t prioritising it over mercy). Yet, do we? How often do we try to earn God’s love? How often do we stick to the laws, written and unwritten, and use that fact to convince [God/ourselves/others] that we are decent people and deserving of respect/love/acceptance – unlike that one over there (whoever they are) doing (whatever they are doing that we disapprove of). For it is an unfortunate fact that there are people who have not felt welcome by the church, and there may well be people we disapprove of, people we judge. For whatever reasons, however we justify it.
That phrase ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ comes from the Old Testament prophet Hosea (chapter 6 verse 6). It is intriguing to look at the different translations for ‘mercy’, which also use the words steadfast/constant love as well as mercy.
So God desires mercy/constant, steadfast love not sacrifice. Moreover, that is how God views us! With mercy, with constant, steadfast, faithful love. Not a God who is going to condemn us the moment we do something wrong, or cast us out if we don’t keep the rules. We will break the rules, we will do things wrong, but that does not stop God loving us. It does mean God knows our need of mercy, of forgiveness. God is not saying that we have done nothing wrong. Jesus was not saying Matthew had done nothing wrong. He did not comment on that, at that point. He merely called Matthew to follow him – and Matthew gets up and follows. God knows our need of mercy, our need of love. That constant, steadfast love is there, for all creation, and God longs for us to turn and receive what he longs to give us. Merciful forgiveness, faithful love.
We do not need to convince our God that we deserve to be loved. God already loves us, loves you. Whatever you may or may not have done. Moreover, God views other people like that as well; including that person who may feel unwelcomed by the church; including that group of people whom we view as ‘sinners’; including that person you know who you disapprove of so much. God’s mercy is there, waiting for us to turn and receive it; God longs to pour his steadfast, committed love over us, if we will but turn and accept it, rather than trying to jump through the hoops, to convince God (or, more possibly, ourselves) that we are worthy of that love.
Because the fact is you’re not. Matthew was a sinner – Jesus never says he approves of what Matthew does, he merely calls him to follow. Those who disapproved of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners were also wrong. We all get things wrong, we all mess up and I suspect most of us have people – whether specific individuals or groups – that we disapprove of and (consciously or not) that we put in the ‘sinner’ category. But do we realise that we are doing to those groups, those individuals, what the Pharisees in this story were doing to Matthew and his friends – putting them in the ‘sinner’ category, at least I’m not like them?
Yet it’s missing the entire point! Which is that God is a God of love who longs to pour out his loving mercy on each of us, if we will only see that and accept it; stay there, allowing that love to flow over us, through us and beyond us. For we only truly hold on to the love of God when we allow it to flow out to those we meet. Moreover, it is exactly that point of needing to feel we have earnt God’s love, that point where we disapprove of whoever it is that we disapprove of, that we need to bring before God, before that mercy and constant, steadfast love, which is always there and will never leave us. It is that point where we try to prove ourselves worthy, often by making others unworthy, that we need to bring before God, who will love us, forgive us and help us see the value of those we cast out. Who are just as loved by God, whom we often cast out for reasons which have far more to do with ourselves. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus came to call not the righteous, but sinners. Which is good news for you and me; for those we respect and those we cast out.
Jesus called Matthew the Tax Collector while he was sitting at the tax office. Matthew rises and follows. The next verse we discover Jesus and his disciples eating with tax collectors and sinners. There is no sense that Jesus expected Matthew to clean up his life before following, or that there was some kind of entry system to the dinner where people had to prove they were no longer sinners. All were welcome. Yes, there are things that are wrong with this world. A quick read of the Old Testament prophets will give us a sense of how God sees those wrongs. Nevertheless, reading a prophet like Hosea also brings us to a place where God sees us with mercy and compassion, who longs for us to come back, who calls us to follow. Who longs for us to see our fellow human beings with such mercy and love, who will understand that such is a lifetime’s journey for most of us, who understands the anger and longing for vengeance that deep hurt can often bring, but whose love will always be there for each of us, drawing us in and calling us deeper – as deep and as far as we are willing and able to go. Who understands that our response is often limited, yet still loves us faithfully, wholly, waiting at the place where we are for us to receive love.