Go and learn your need for God’s steadfast love and mercy, and you will find it.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 10 A
Texts: Matthew 9:9-26 (incl. vv. 14-17 not appointed for today); Hosea 5:15 – 6:6; Psalm 50:7-15
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus says: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”
Jesus is crossing all kinds of barriers the Pharisees believe God has in place. He’s called an undesirable to be a follower, this tax collector Matthew, and he eats with undesirables. They don’t know yet, but he’s not finished – he’ll soon allow a bleeding woman to touch him and even heal her, even though the law says that he becomes unclean if an unclean person touches him. He does it once more when he touches the dead child and raises her, again becoming unclean by touching what is unclean.
But Jesus says two powerful things to them. First, only sick people need a doctor, and seek a doctor, not healthy ones. And second, they need to do their homework, go back to Hosea, our first reading, and understand what Jesus quoted from it, that God desires steadfast love, mercy, not sacrifice.
Go to those Scriptures you say you know, he says, and learn what God really wants. Then we can talk.
Today’s readings all reveal what God desires most.
Both the northern and southern kingdoms have sinned against God, and Hosea declares God’s anger. They’ve worshipped other gods, permitted perjury, committed murder and theft and adultery. And the people think if they just return to their sacrifices, their burnt offerings, God will be happy with them again.
But God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Echoed in today’s psalm and throughout the prophets, God desires a changed heart, not empty words and rituals and practices.
The Pharisees think they have this all figured out. Both kingdoms ended up destroyed and exiled. So when only Judah returns, groups like the Pharisees emerge, with a system of laws and purity standards intended to make sure the people never stray again. Lesson learned. Keep the rules and God’ll be happy.
But Jesus says they haven’t learned anything. They still don’t understand what it truly means that God desires steadfast love and mercy, not burnt offerings.
Now, the Pharisees are trusting in their rules, not their burnt offerings.
Temple sacrifices are still happening at this time, but what they’re angry about is Jesus breaking the purity laws and codes they’ve set to keep the people in line with God. And yet Jesus says they still have the same problem as Hosea’s people.
We don’t sacrifice animals to please God. So here’s the first piece of our homework: do Jesus’ words apply to us? What are we clinging to that prevents us from understanding God’s heart is about steadfast love and mercy for all? If not burnt offerings, what?
Is it our belief that we’re the right kind of Christians in a world where many Christians seem to be the anti-Christ? Christian fascism and Christian nationalism are on the rise in our country, and many who bear the name Christian promote death and destruction and oppression and exclusion and hatred, all in Christ’s name. They seek political power to do what they want without restriction, and cover it with Christianity’s label. We are right to decry that abuse of the name of Christ, that betrayal of the love of Christ. We need to work against it as hard as we can.
But is our judgment of these Christians also our trap? Our self-justification? Do we think, “we’re right, we’re loving like Christ, and God knows that and is happy with us, not like those evil ones?” Maybe our self-righteousness is our burnt offerings.
The true answer for us is hidden in Jesus’ words and actions today.
Jesus says “those who are well don’t need a physician, only those who are sick.” He spends time with so-called “sinners,” the undesirables, the unclean, folks the Pharisees reject and cast out, because God’s mercy is for them.
And there’s the hidden secret: Jesus can only give God’s steadfast love and mercy to those who need it. Those who know they’re broken, sinful, those who have no ground to stand on before God. No offerings. No self-righteousness. These are the ones Jesus spends time with and loves because they’re the only ones who realize what he’s offering and their own need.
This is your real homework assignment, learning this: do you need God’s mercy? Do you have nothing to stand on before God except your hope that Jesus, God-with-us, came to seek and to heal the lost?
Go and learn what this means, Jesus says.
Ask yourself, what mercy do I need and want from God that I have a hard time admitting? It’s easier to compare ourselves to others who seem to be a lot worse. But it risks missing the mercy we need for life.
How are you handling those deeply rooted habits and ways you cling to that hurt those you love and others? How are you doing with those inner prejudices that keep cropping up even though you’ve tried to get beyond them? How are you handling the racism and sexism and classism that lurk under the surface of our hearts? It’s hard to imagine what it would be to let go of our privilege we have, and yet, how is that keeping us, keeping you, from being a part of God’s abundance and grace for all God’s children?
Do you see? Once you take Jesus’ assignment seriously, you pretty quickly long for a God who has a heart of mercy and steadfast love for you.
And do you see? That’s exactly where you need to be to receive and know God’s mercy in Christ.
I didn’t come for people who think they’re well, Jesus said. Just for sick folks.
And I came, Jesus said, to give them abundant life, and a healed heart, and a hope for a healed world. Look at this dinner party Jesus attends: it’s full of people who only know two things, their need of God’s love, and the truth that they’ve found that love in Jesus.
The sooner you do our homework and learn your need of God’s steadfast love and mercy, the sooner you’ll rejoice in it. And the sooner we can all become part of the Triune God’s persistent plan to spread steadfast love and mercy to every child of God on this planet.
Go and learn what this means.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen