Summary: Jesus wanted mercy not sacrifice. He calls us, as he called Matthew to bring mercy into the world in which we live.
3 Pentecost A Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 9 June 2002
Rev. Roger Haugen
Oh, the life of a Pharisee! They worked so hard to get it right with God, and seemed to get it all wrong. They had rules and regulations. They knew when to come to the temple, how to behave there. They knew how everyone else was to behave. They knew who was good enough to be there and who wasn’t. The life of the temple was the centre of their lives. This was, no doubt, a great sacrifice but, “Hey, who else would do it?” There was all this about clean and unclean. They knew about duty, they wrote the laws, they enforced them because after all, God must be concerned with the minutiae of ritual and ceremony, looking to blast all those who faltered. The task was tough but they were up to the challenge of keeping the law and seeing that others did as well. It was a sacrifice but there were rewards.
You couldn’t blame them once in a while for thinking, “See how much I do.” Who could blame that one who prayed in the synagogue thanking God that he wasn’t like the sinner praying out there by the door. Yes, the life of a Pharisee was one of sacrifice, there wasn’t much joy in it, but we all have our crosses to bear. It was a duty, a sacrifice but in doing it all, they knew they were indeed superior, right with God because they kept all the rules.
Then along comes Jesus. He breaks all the rules, muddies the water between righteous and unrighteous, even between clean and unclean. He eats with sinners, enjoys the company of the unclean, heals indiscriminately. And now he has invited himself to the house of Matthew, the tax collector. There was no one lower on the scale than a Jew who would sell out to the Romans collecting taxes from his own kind. But Jesus came to their kind. Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The biggest stumbling block for the Pharisees was that they had convinced themselves that they were the righteous and were miserable enough to prove it. They had the calluses on their knees, they knew the laws and kept them, they had the scorecards to prove it. They had made the appropriate sacrifice.
Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and there are the righteous hurrying off to get to the church meeting while a Samaritan stops to offer mercy. He tells the story of the Pharisees praying in the temple and the sinner praying “God help me, a sinner!” and we know the sinner was forgiven. Jesus touches the unclean, the leper, the outcast, the women and offers them life and healing. The Pharisees couldn’t understand why Jesus would eat with Matthew, heal the unclean women or touch a dead child.
Jesus simply goes about his ministry, healing whatever it is that keeps people from being whole. Jesus says to the Pharisees and to us, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Find yourself getting caught up in the minutiae of law and theological gymnastics? Looking at your performance and seeing others who do not measure up? Feeling like worship is just another worthwhile sacrifice, but one that makes you superior to those who aren’t here? Listen to the words of Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It is easy to fall into the trap of the Pharisee, to get caught up in the rules and regulations, how we do or do not act, and forget what it is that Jesus requires -- mercy. When we get caught up in sacrifice, God becomes a scorekeeper looking for us to slip. We see people performance below ours and we at least can feel superior in our sacrifice.
When Luther joined the monastery he could not accept himself nor could he find peace among his fellow monks. In the monastery Luther struggled to maintain the highest standards of piety, morality and self-discipline. His own memoirs recount that he lived in constant fear of the righteousness of God. For Luther, God’s righteousness was modeled after human righteousness. Luther thought that God also was struggling to maintain the standards and to punish all who failed to live up to the rules. Luther joined a club with high standards, but he too like Groucho Marx did not want to be a member of a club that would accept people like him as members.
Luther’s great discovery came in his personal struggle reading Scripture. The righteousness of God was not God’s wrathful eye and avenging sword waiting to execute all the objects of his wrath. God’s righteousness is found in Jesus’ words today, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Luther discovered the righteousness of God as grace, mercy, and loving-kindness. For Luther the gift of God’s love requires us to humbly join a club that accepts people like us as members.