Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8
There was a leper, who came to Jesus and knelt before him saying “Lord if you choose you can make me clean. He stretched out his hand and touched him saying. “I do choose.” (Mat 8:1-3)
A Centurion came to him appealing to him and saying “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him I will come and cure him” (Matt: 8:5-8)
“And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, take heart, son your sins are forgiven. (Matt 9:2-2)
“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting in the tax booth and he said to him, “Follow me.” (Matt: 9:9
“A leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him saying “My daughter has just died but come and lay your hand on her and she will live.” And Jesus got up and follow him, with his disciples. ( Matt 9:18)
“A woman who had been suffering from hemorrahages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak for she said to herself. “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” (Matt 9: 20-21).
“Two blind men followed him crying loudly, “have mercy on us Son of David!” Then he touched their eyes…” (Matt. 9: 29).
These are the people, these are the voices, this is the hurt and the need but also the healing and the joy that is being drawing to Jesus. There is something about this Rabbi that frees people to bring their deepest needs to him, to show up in their brokenness before him, to stretch out their arms to him.
These are the people that are surrounding Jesus, and these are the people that Jesus is not just interacting with but they are the people he is sitting down and sharing a meal with. And that is where things start to go a bit too far.
At least for the Pharisees.
For when they see Jesus sitting at table sharing a meal with these tax collectors and sinners, they demand that the disciples explain to them what he is doing. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinner?”
I had often wondered why the Pharisees are so upset by Jesus sharing a meal with these so called sinners? What harm could there possibly be by handing out a few sandwiches and sitting down together to eat them. What harm could there be with setting an extra place at the lunch bunch table. Isn’t sharing a meal just a simple act of kindness? A gift of charity, really?
Actually No. Not at all! Especially when Jesus is at table.
Rob Bell, teacher and theologian calls what Jesus is doing here “revolutionary dinner theatre.” What Jesus is doing here is revealing a reality that is deeper, wider, before and beyond and that deconstructs the operating ethos upon which the Pharisees have ordered their world.
The Pharisees’ world is built on the purity code and upon the pronouncement of who is worthy and who is not. Who measures up and who fails to do so. Who is in and who must never be admitted.
You see they understood that the whole reason that the Jewish people were suffering under the oppressive boot of Rome, the whole reason they were being dominated by this superpower (Bell says that it was believed that the taxation rate in the Galilee at Jesus time would have been around 90%), was that they were being punished by God for the sins of the people. And in that time, anyone who was sick, poor, or suffering, would have been termed as sinners. In that operating ethos, sinners were the ones to be blamed for the hardship of the time. There were responsible for what is wrong and as such they should be kept at a distance. Kept in their place.
It is not that the Pharisees were cruel. Not at all. They simply believed that by condemning what they saw to be wrong and doing what they saw to be good and worthy, they were doing what needed to be done to hold together and preserve their world in the midst of an ever present and real threat of annihilation.
So when they saw Jesus eating with these sinners they saw it not as a harmless act of kindness but instead as a political act that threatened to undo all that they were working so hard to hold together.
And they were right. For Jesus to eat with these people that others had cast away was to say that they in fact they were not to be forgotten but that they were part of Jesus household, family, they belonged and were to be celebrated and share in the banquet of grace.
And with that we pick up the Gospel passage for us this morning. Jesus hears the Pharisees muttering in the door way, demanding to know what Jesus is doing with those kind of people. Jesus hears this turning to the Pharisees he says “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
“Go and learn what this means.” Jesus is speaking to the most learned in the land. The ones drenched in scriptural literacy who spend their life energy studying and yet Jesus suggests they are the ones who have something to learn?
They? — the righteous, upright, smart, sophisticated?
“Go and learn what this means, “I desire Mercy not sacrifice.” Words spoken not first by Jesus but by the prophet Hosea before him. “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6
Words echoes by the Prophet Micah –
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness (also translated as mercy),
and to walk humbly with your God?
What is it that Jesus wants them to learn? I think he wants them to be able to see that the dominate operating ethos of the day, the ethos by which they have ordered their lives is not of God. The ethos that:
- Life is a struggle and the outcome unsure.
- God is distant Judge.
- sinners ought to be ashamed of themselves.
- Scarcity is the operating principle – and there is only enough for those who deserve
- Fear is the only logical response to our perilous situation.
- Takes sacrifice and constant scrutiny to keep us working to be worthy and within those who deserve to be saved.
All of that, that dominate ethos in their time as well as ours I would say, is false.
Instead, I think Jesus is trying to wake people up to and reconnect them with the deep truth of the Biblical witness and that is that:
Life is a meal shared together.
- God is the host.
- Humans are the guests.
- We are at table without doing anything to deserve to be so.
- Participating in the joy, sharing in and extending the joy, as a good guest would do so is our life work.
- Our response is to be one of gratitude not shame.
- Life is a celebration and we are already at the table.
Jesus asks the Pharisee to “Go and learn what this means” because it turns out they are actually the ones on the outside looking in. They are the ones who are at the banquet, but who are not sharing in it. They are the lonely and lost ones. The one who know only judgment and who have not permitted themselves to draw up a chair at the bountiful table of grace. They are so ensnared in a theology of judgment and sacrifice that they are missing out on the feast that is right before them. (Many of the ideas in this previous section are drawn from Rob Bell podcaset, October 29, 2018. RobCast. “Jesus H. Christ Part 7”)
When I read this scripture, I’d like to think that I’d be right there at the table with a big grin on my face as I make ready to devour a big slice of blueberry pie.
But if I am honest, I’d probably be back there by the door, judging myself (and God help me maybe even judging others) as not being worthy of joining in.
Or more likely, I’d back there by the door, tapping my watch, full of judgment, insisting that celebrations come after victories are won and not before. There will be time for feasting after the work is done and not before.
But what Jesus is reminding us of in the scripture for today. What the prophets of Hosea, and Micah and others before him are reminding us of, is that it is in fellowship with God that the power and presence of God is revealed. Why do you think we eat together so much in this community? Why is our reception time so important? Why is our lunch bunch table so beautifully and bountifully laid month after month? Why do we gather around this communion table with reverence and anticipation? Because it is in coming together sinners and saints, broken and beloved, (for that is who each of us are), that the power and the presence of God is made known to us.
And it is then, only then, I believe, when we push back our chair, satiated, having delighted in each other and in the God that hosts us, when we are filled up with such goodness — are we ready to go out to do the world healing and life changing work that is ours to do in our time. How can we save the world if we, ourselves have not experienced the joy of being made whole.
In a few minutes we are going to be invited to draw up a chair as it were to this bountiful table. I invite you to eat your fill. Drink until you are satiated. Have another piece of pie and delight in Jesus’ delight in you. So that when this service ends and the time of service begins we will have what we need to give to the world what we have already so generously received. And may that be a life giving, world changing, home-coming for saints and sinners alike. Thanks be to God. Amen