God Desires Mercy

There’s an old adage about congregations that seems relevant for today’s gospel lesson: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  The problem is that many of us like museums and their collections, pieces of art lauded for their importance and beauty, for their exquisiteness and highbrow sophistication. With the possible exception of the work of Banksy, we tend not to hold up graffiti in the same way we value a Monet. So it is with churches. We prefer displays of perfection from the assembled people rather than imagining it like the sick ward at a hospital.

A sermon based on Matthew 9 and Hosea 6.

But not Jesus. As one commentator put it, Jesus reminds us that “like a hospital, a church is a place where many different people, with many different needs, come looking for help.” “It’s not the well who need a physician, but the sick,” Jesus tells the theological elites many of whom it seems enjoyed looking down their noses at others less fortunate then themselves. A church isn’t a country club, but a place of healing.

This all started simply because Jesus saw Matthew sitting in a tax booth, and said to him, “Follow me.” Tax collectors were despised then as much as they are now. While in our day the IRS is regulated, back then people like Matthew would be told what the tax figure was from the officials, and then they would add on top whatever they wanted their cut to be. Tax collectors were known to add on exorbitant amounts, and there was nothing the locals could do except despise them and pay. So when Jesus, said “Follow me” to Matthew, you can bet eyebrows were raised.

And then Matthew invites Jesus to his house for a dinner party with all his pals. That pushes all the buttons of the religious types. These ask Jesus’ other followers why he eats with tax collectors and sinners—showing exactly what they thought about Matthew and his crowd. Jesus seems to have very sharp hearing, so he responds to the question: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” 

Which is a whole lot to unpack. For example, is Jesus calling the religious leaders “righteous”? Are they “well”? And if that’s all true, then why tell them to go and learn what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice? What does mercy have to do with all this anyway, and why is it more desirable than sacrifice?

We don’t like being honest about our flaws. When asked the obligatory question about our “weaknesses” or “growing edges” when applying for a new job, we have a ready answer that sounds more like a positive. In fact there’s a website that shows you how to do exactly this, giving more than 70 examples of potential answers. The authors of the site claim “This single question has the power to determine in one swift blow whether you are a potential asset or a liability to a prospective employer.” They strongly urge you to not say that your fault is that you work too hard or are a perfectionist, which feels like you aren’t self-aware. Rather, they advise, pick a minor weakness that wouldn’t disqualify you from the job and then say how you intend to overcome said weakness. Now imagine being asked about what our moral failings are. We’d immediately pull out the ways we’ve done the opposite, giving back to the community, for example, or our involvement at church. We wouldn’t say, “Well, it’s been a hard week and so I gave into the following vices when tempted.” Not a chance. We want to be seen as perfect.

“It isn’t the righteous that I’ve come to heal, but sinners.” 

I suspect those Pharisees would have done well to learn how to be self-aware. That they did indeed have their own faults lying hidden in their hearts. Perhaps it was anger, or their self-righteous attitude, or something else—no need for us to really speculate about it, just as I’d rather not lay out my shortcomings and sins with you this morning—but they should have realized by now that their lives weren’t perfect either. That while they might not have been dealing with something very apparent—the moral equivalent of a significant laceration needing stitches which you could readily see—they were perhaps troubled by something internal like a hardening of the arteries that was difficult to diagnose. Or, to put it another way, who among us has never been to the doctor for something? Which of us has never needed medical assistance?

Which then brings us to Jesus’ other statement to them: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” If you were paying attention, you noticed that our reading from Hosea this morning includes a similar line: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Three ideas to express the same thing that is desired by the Almighty instead of offerings and sacrifices, “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and “the knowledge of God.” In Hosea, the prophet states that the people’s love for God evaporates like the morning dew. It’s fickle. And Jesus is saying the same thing to the religious types. You’re not showing mercy in the way God would like you to. You’re love is reserved for those who are in cahoots with you. And you are wrong about this.

Jesus then goes on to show what this means in tangible ways beyond just having lamb, pita, and hummus with some tax collectors. Immediately following this dinner, he is touched by a woman who is hemorrhaging, which would have made him unclean. He doesn’t chastise her or get upset, rather he shows her mercy and steadfast love. He shows the way of God. And then he goes from there to touch the hand of a dead girl—also something forbidden by religious purity laws—and restores her to life. All because he chooses compassion. He embodies the way of God.

The direction of the love of God is toward the marginalized, the despised, and the outcasts. And the medicine for those ailments is always the same: mercy and love. Love can do amazing things. It’s easy to find before and after photos of animals online that had been treated cruelly and then how they look after they’ve received love. It’s a night and day difference. A goldfish—a goldfish!—with dark black splotches around its body after a few weeks of careful attention is a brilliant gold. Dogs that had been ill-treated, thin, and scared, smiling with tails wagging and fuller coats and bodies. Pets rescued from harmful situations flourish once they receive love.

As do we all. It’s the very thing we long for. The healing balm that we need. Mercy and love, not judgment and hate.

Friends, as a church we are called to be a place of love. To show on the outside and on the in that our mission is to love. And that love goes both ways: we show our love for God in how we care for this physical place and for the people who worship here, and also in how we present and show that love to those outside of this community. How we take care of our buildings and grounds is a piece of it, because it shows our deep love for this community as a sign and symbol of our love and devotion to God and our neighbors. And how we welcome all who come to our doors—whether it’s their first time through them, or their thousandth time—matters greatly. Because this is a house of love and mercy. And place that knows the ways of God.

So let us be that place and those people, recognizing that we all need that compassion. That’s the thing those Pharisees missed most of all, that they needed that love too. Far too often those who are comfortable think they have it all together, but that does not exempt them from the desire to be known and loved for who they are so that they might blossom and flourish. Those people on the margins are far more ready to admit their need of it, but Jesus makes it clear that the love and mercy of God can transform all of us. Let us live into that love more fully ourselves, both individually and as a community. Let us become even more boldly a place of love where all are welcomed and accepted and invited in to God’s story. We we be a church that chooses mercy and steadfast love over the ways of perfection, and truly embrace the call to live as Jesus did. May it be so.

Image by Angela Yuriko Smith from Pixabay

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