Third Sunday of Pentecost
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
Why do we do the things we do? I recently heard an interview with a young man who suffers from obsessive compulsive behaviors. He finds it necessary to repeatedly do some things like touch certain buttons or check certain switches. These behaviors are not harmful, though they seem quite silly and a waste of time. Yet, he can't move on to other things until he has completed his ritual. In the interview he said that his behavior is unselfish. He believes something bad will happen – something bad enough to hurt others – if he does not complete the ritual. In a humorous way, he suggested that if we don't want the world to end we should support him in his behavior so that he can continue doing it to keep us safe from harm.
While it is unlikely for most of us to get into our car three times and touch all the buttons, we all have rituals that are part of our lives. Perhaps it has to do with the way we get ready for work in the morning or the way we do our after dinner chores. Perhaps we like to spend Sunday afternoon in front of the television with a game and the newspaper. Some people are almost fanatical about the order in which they read the Sunday news. If they find their paper is disorder, it ruins their day.
We might never be able to answer why we do some of the things that we do. An obsessive compulsive can't give a reason and neither can the guy who has to read the paper a certain way every Sunday. On the other hand, we all have some behaviors that we do with a definite motive in mind. We work eighteen hours a day because we want to get ahead in our job or we want the financial benefits. We walk daily to be healthy. We choose the food we eat for a reason – whether it is for health reasons or because we really like certain foods. Most of our behaviors have a specific motivation, good or bad, and it is valuable to look at our motives when thinking about the things that we do.
Take, for instance, our church attendance. Why do we get up every Sunday morning, get all dressed up (or not), travel to a church building to sit for an hour or so in an uncomfortable pew listening and participating in the worship? After all, some suggest that we can worship God anywhere – in a field, on the golf course or in the privacy of our own home. The television is filled with worship services on Sunday mornings. We can even mail our tithe to the preacher of our choice.
Do we go, as some also suggest, out of habit? Is it duty? Is it because we are looking for something – to be fed, to learn or to find friendship with other Christians? Do we go to see family and friends or to network with other professionals? There are plenty of good reasons to gather with other Christians each week, though many Christians go for all the wrong reasons. They moan and groan as they roll out of bed, seeing the behavior as sacrificial. They are doing their duty and nothing more. Their hearts are not in it. Is it harmful for them to attend worship when they don't feel like being there? No, just like the obsessive compulsive whose behaviors do not harm others, the worship martyr who thinks of his or her presence at church is a sacrifice will not harm the worship of others. Besides, God may just break down that hardened heart and touch that Christian in a new and deeper way. Duty is not necessarily a bad thing – we all have days when we would rather not do what we should do, and we do so only out of duty. Unfortunately, duty is turned into law all too easily.
The Israelites had turned from God. They were no longer worshipping Him with their hearts and with their lives. They turned to other nations for protection; they did not seek His face in their troubles. In the first verses of chapter six, Ephraim and Judah seem to cry out for repentance, but God sees their hearts. They do not confess their sin against God, but only go to Him to get out of another mess. Their goodness is passing like the morning mist. So, God warns that He will give them over to the prophets who will speak His word into their lives, a word that will slay them.
The psalm for today is a word to God's people. He does not rebuke them for not giving sacrifice, for they do so constantly. Instead, He reminds them that He does not need their food or their blood. "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee; for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof." The point of sacrifice was not to appease God or to pay Him back. Everything we could possibly give to Him is His already. No, the purpose of sacrifice was to come to God in humility and seek His mercy and forgiveness for our sin.
They did what He commanded; they sacrificed according to the Law. In the days of Jesus, leaders were righteous to the very letter of the law. They fasted when they were supposed to fast and they followed every rule. They passed this burden of law to the rest of Israel, never seeing the world through the eyes of God's love or mercy. Those who suffered, whatever their suffering, were sinners and outcast. They had no mercy and they did not know the hope that is found in the promises of God. They thought righteousness came only with perfect obedience.
In today's Gospel passage, including the part that was cut out of the lectionary, two groups of people came demanding to know why Jesus did not do what was expected of a man of God. In the first passage, Jesus called Matthew – a tax collector – into His circle of friends. He went with Matthew to his home and ate with other sinners. The Pharisees were offended by this gesture and asked Jesus' disciples about his actions. "Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners?" Jesus heard the question and answered that only the sick need a doctor and then He sent them with an assignment. "But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."
These words from Jesus came from today's Old Testament lesson. There Hosea tells the people the same thing. What is the mercy He desires? He desires that His people recognize their sin, confess it and seek His forgiveness. Dutiful sacrifice does nothing. But love and mercy changes lives.
In the next part of Matthew, John's disciples came to Jesus and asked why His disciples do not fast. Jesus answered, "Can the sons of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast." It was not a time of duty or mourning, but a time of joy. Jesus Christ, Immanuel, walked among the people of God, but they did not recognize Him anymore than the people in Hosea's day.
Finally in today's Gospel lesson, Jesus was asked by a young ruler to restore his dead daughter to him. His faith brought him to Jesus, his hope brought him to worship and seek His mercy. Jesus followed the young ruler and found that the people were already mourning her death. It is unfortunate to say, but most of the mourners were probably there for all the wrong reasons. Many may have been paid to mourn. Others may have been looking for favors from the young ruler. Yet others may have done so out of duty.
When Jesus came He told them that the child was not dead. This was a ridiculous claim and they laughed at Him. They would not have been there if the child was still alive, and if she was alive then they would not benefit from their attendance at her funeral. The crowds were sent out of the house and Jesus went to the girl. He took her by the hand and she was raised. The young ruler had hope, and his hope was in Jesus. He had faith enough to seek Him out, to worship Him and to ask for His help.
The Gospel passage tells us one other story – that of a woman who had been bleeding for many years. She should not have even been in the crowd, since the men would have been made unclean by her touch. It was a tight crowd, with pushing and shoving as the people tried to get near Jesus. I imagine that the woman was not the only one who wanted to touch Him. He was becoming a popular figure; word of His work was spreading. It had gone far enough for the young ruler to know He could heal. Jesus was probably pushed and shoved and touched many times in that journey.
So why was the touch of the woman different? He made no comment about the others, but He felt the power go out of Him. She needed healing and she had faith. She was an outcast, did not belong in that group. But she sought His face – or at least His robe. She believed that He would make a difference and He did. He turned to her and said, "Daughter, be of good cheer; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour." Her life was one of sorrow and Jesus gave her joy. The Pharisees would have ignored her needs, scorned her for her disease and called her a sinner. Jesus had mercy.
In Paul's letter to the Romans we are reminded again that it is not the Law that brings righteousness, but rather it is faith. Abraham did not even have the Law, but he was counted as righteous. We too are made right with God through the same faith – the faith of our father Abraham. There is no hope in the Law because there is no promise. What hope did Abraham have? His body was old, well beyond the child bearing years, as was Sarah's. As he grew older, the possibility of seeing the promise fulfilled – the children as numerous as the stars – grew less likely. Yet, Abraham had hope because he had faith in the promise of God. He continued to go forth according to God's word, not because he thought it would bring him blessings but because he was living in thanksgiving for what God would do.
The young ruler and the woman also went forth, not because they thought they could earn the blessing, but because they had hope in the promise that God would have mercy. So, why do we go forth? Do we do so out of duty? Do we go to worship because we might get something out of it – a spark of faith, a message of hope, a little food for our souls? Why do we go out into the world to share the Gospel message of forgiveness with others? Is it because we think we will get some great reward for doing God's work? Do we do it because we feel it is our duty as Christians?
Our motivation matters. Where is our heart? We don't make sacrifices as they did in the days of Hosea or Jesus. We don't sacrifice animals, but we do sacrifice our time, our leisure, and our finances. We should not be going into worship with an attitude of mourning over what we think we have lost. Christ comes to heal those who come in faith. He comes to bring reconciliation between people, calling the sick into a relationship with Him so that He can change them and make them whole. He doesn't need us to be there. He doesn't need our time or our money. He desires our joy and our worship. "For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." Jesus wants us to know Him, to recognize His presence in our lives and to go forth in faith and joy. He calls us into fellowship, not to suffer together or meet our needs, but to worship Him with our whole hearts. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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