Fr. John Allison
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
June 11, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Or, as translated in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Hosea, who Jesus is quoting in his exchange with the Pharisees, “I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
I’ve been pondering this sentence for much of the week as I reflected on our Gospel because it seems there is a lot going on: Jesus calls Matthew, the tax collector to become a disciple and then dines with him and many of his friends and fellow tax collectors, which, as the Pharisees point out, was quite scandalous as this group would have been living on the margins of Jewish society. Tax collectors, in particular, were considered disloyal to the Jewish people because of their collusion with the Roman occupiers and tendency to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Then after his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is approached by the leader of the synagogue whose daughter has died and he believes Jesus can bring her back to life; on his way to the little girl, he’s approached by a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, a condition that would have made her ritually unclean and an outcast. She touches only the fringe of his cloak and he sees her and she is healed. Jesus continues on to the child and when he finally arrives brings her back to life.
That’s a lot of disparate action and as I try to make sense of it all I keep coming back to that sentence that Jesus quotes from Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” You see, the three people whose lives Jesus touches in this passage, though of very different circumstances, are all moved by faith to receive the love that Jesus offers, the mercy that Jesus offers. It doesn’t matter that Matthew is a tax collector and considered a betrayer of his people; it doesn’t matter that the bleeding woman is considered unclean and treated as an outcast; it doesn’t matter to the leader of the synagogue that Jesus is dining with sinners and tax collectors and that he and his disciples don’t always follow the religious law as an observant Jew of his day normally would. Jesus is able to touch the unique needs of all three of these people—people from different positions in life and living in very different circumstances, because of their faith, because of their trust in God’s love. God’s love is not dependent on their actions but on their faith.
This seeming contrast between faith and the law, between faith and the prescribed rituals and expectations of religious practice, was a key issue in the early Church. That’s one of the major themes in Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we begin reading today and will continue over the next several weeks. Actually, it’s at the heart of many of Paul’s writings as he seeks to welcome Gentiles into God’s all-encompassing love—much as Jesus welcomed those considered to be sinners and outcasts into his ministry. It created a lot of controversy in both cases, and it continues today. The question of who’s in and who’s out continues in our churches even though the players have changed. In fact, it’s at the center of much of the conflict and heartache that plague this diocese in its hesitancy to fully include gay and lesbian Christians in the life of the Church—most specifically in the sacraments of marriage and ordination.
What Paul points us to, however, in following Jesus’ example is that there is not an inherent contradiction between faith and action but, rather, that God’s love does not depend on our action but on our faith. God’s love comes first.
All of creation grew from God’s love. We were created from God’s love. Our faith, our trust in that love is the beginning of our life in Christ. It’s from that faith that we begin to grow into who God created us to be—beings created in the image of love. Our actions follow our faith. Our rituals, or worship, our way of being in the world all follow the faith that is at the core of our being. That doesn’t mean that what Paul refers to as righteousness isn’t necessary but that righteousness, or right action, is made possible through faith.
But, of course, it isn’t easy. It’s not always easy to remain faithful in lives often marked by disappointments and unfulfilled expectations. We all have troubles in our lives—illness, loss, death, just to name a few—not to mention the troubles that mark the larger world—war, poverty, violence, natural disasters. The lists could go on and on but in the face of such difficulties, our faith, our trust is what leads us through. It’s easy to forget that in the heat of the moment or when we live from a place of fear or anger.
That was the case for the people to whom Hosea is writing. They had ceased to live from a trust in God’s love and turned away. I imagine it as a kind of willful forgetting because I sometimes see that in myself. I know that God loves me, and I trust that love but the implications of accepting that love, the demand that I embody that love, sometimes seems so hard that’s it’s easier to look the other way, to follow an easier path that may not necessarily be obviously evil but that fails to embody who God made me to be. We can see examples of this turning away in scripture and in our own lives if we are paying attention.
In her book, Operating Instructions, the writer Anne Lamott tells a story about taking her two-year-old son to Lake Tahoe where she had rented a condominium by the lake. It was late when they arrived and she put him in his playpen in the bedroom, turned off the light, and closed the door so that she could do some work as he dozed. A few minutes later she heard knocking from inside the room. She knew he’d climbed out of his playpen and so she went to get him but as she tried to open the door she realized it was locked. He had somehow managed to push the little button on the door knob and locked himself in. Very quickly, it became clear to him that his mother could not open the door, and he began to panic and cry—loudly. She panicked too and tried everything from jiggling the knob to calling the vacant front desk and leaving messages for help.
Her terrified child was in a locked, dark room and she couldn’t get him out. Finally, she did the only thing she could: she slid her fingers under the door, where there was just a tiny bit of space. She told him over and over the bend down and find her fingers at the bottom of the door and, somehow, he finally did. They stayed like that, him holding her fingers in the dark—slowly feeling connected, feeling her love, feeling her presence and care.
I think we’re sometimes like that young child. We get locked in and don’t realize it until it’s too late and then can’t fix it on our own. What we can do is trust and find comfort in the even the tiniest of openings. That’s the faith that God has planted in us and from it great things can grow. That’s the faith that we see in Matthew as he says, yes, to following Jesus; that’s the faith that heals the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak; that’s the faith that raised a little girl from the dead. It is faith in which we are all united in God’s love—no matter who we are. That’s God’s desire for us. Amen.