Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 9:1-13, 18-26
But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
In the passage from Hosea, God says, “For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings.” God is faithful and longsuffering. He is steadfast and merciful. The same could not be said about Israel. God’s chosen nation ran after the gods of their neighbors, honoring God only when it suited them. They followed the rituals with their bodies, but not with their hearts. Their love was fleeting and they did not live up to God’s expectations. It is written in this passage that the love of Israel was like the morning fog that disappears as soon as the sun is shining. Though they had been delivered from difficulty and blessed with prosperity, they forgot the God who showed them mercy by His grace.
They still performed the rites of their worship, offering sacrifice according to the laws, but they gave honor to the gods of their neighbors. The people of Israel were giving burnt offerings and sacrifices to God, but they were not giving Him their hearts. They did not really know the God of their fathers or understand the purpose of the things they were doing. They were motivated not by love or praise of God, but out of duty to the expectations of the law and the people. They were obedient to the rules, but lost touch with the intent of what God had for His people.
We aren’t much different. There are certainly times when we do things for all the wrong reasons, thinking perhaps that it is right when in reality it is far from what God would have us do. Take, for example, 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 a service? 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 we can watch on Sunday morning and there are opportunities to listen on the radio. We can even have our tithe automatically transferred out of our bank account. So, why do we go?
A story is told of a man who had a dream about our worship from the perspective of heaven. An angel took him into a church one Sunday. Everything was as normal; the people were singing with the musicians and listening to the minister speaking God’s word, yet there was no sound. When the man asked what this meant, the angel answered that it was how worship was heard in heaven, for though the lips of the people were making the motions; their hearts and minds were elsewhere.
For some, perhaps, church attendance is merely habit. It is what we’ve always done. Sunday morning worship is a great place to catch up with old friends and see family. For some, gathering on Sunday is a way to network with other professionals. Some like the music. Others think the pastor is really funny and they enjoy listening to him preach. Some can’t make it through a week without being ‘fed’ by the Word of God. Some don’t want to be there; they moan and groan as they roll out of bed, calling their attendance a sacrifice for God’s sake. How does God benefit from a person whose heart is not involved in the worship? Does God get bigger because of the heartless sacrifice of those who gather for worship? Of course not.
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 God’s face in their troubles. In this passage from Hosea, it seems as though God’s people were crying out in 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. He does not want ritual or sacrifice; He wants the hearts of His people.
They hadn’t stopped offering their sacrifices. As a matter of fact, the blood was pouring constantly as they did their duty according to the law. In the psalm God says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee; For the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.” He does not rebuke them for not giving enough, 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.” 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 to seek His mercy and forgiveness for our sin.
In the days of Jesus, the leaders were righteous to the very letter of the law. They fasted when they were supposed to fast and they followed every rule. They did what God had commanded; they sacrificed according to the Law. God desires lives of praise, not the things we think we can give Him. He owns the whole world, the creation and all those who live in it. We cannot give Him anything for nothing is ours to give. We can only sing songs of praise and thanksgiving and look to Him above all else in this world. He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Comforter. True worship will focus on Him, keeping Him at the center of Church, worshipping Him and praising Him for all that He has done.
In the Gospel lesson we see the difference between living by faith and living according to the Law. We hear the stories of several people who experienced the mercy of God through Jesus Christ. There was a paralyzed man, a tax collector, a ruler whose daughter died and a woman who had been bleeding for many years. Each of these stories represents a type of person who is outcast from the society in which they live, judged by some as a sinner. We can’t identify their sin; there was probably nothing visible. It did not matter that there was no proof of sinfulness—suffering was proof enough. God would not allow dis-ease of any sort to come to those who are righteous.
Some men brought a paralyzed man before Jesus to be healed. Instead of reaching out and causing the man to walk, Jesus said, “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven.” In this story, it is important to note that Jesus is concerned about the spiritual health of the man and his friends. He saw their faith and assured them that their faith was justified. “You are forgiven.” There was an assumption among those watching this exchange that the paralyzed man was a sinner that deserved his disease. Jesus’ words of assurance that the man is forgiven do not make sense in a culture that blames illness on sinfulness. How can Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven” if the man is still crippled? Jesus proves His authority by healing the man.
The word of forgiveness is not for some specific sin that caused the paralysis. Jesus offers the promise of eternal life that comes from faith. He assures the man and his friends that the paralysis is not a sign of separation from God as might be thought by the self-righteous. The people who saw the man rise and walk away were amazed that God would give a man such authority. It was not simply the power of healing that amazed them. They were troubled by this because Jesus seemed to have more authority than those they had trusted with their spiritual lives. Jesus is concerned about the whole being: body, mind and spirit.
The text moves to the story of Matthew, a tax collector, whom Jesus calls to be a disciple. Matthew didn’t even think twice about following Jesus. Tax collectors made their living by skimming off the top of the taxes they collected. The more they could convince the people to pay, the more they made. Though Matthew was not ill like the man in the first story, he was seen as a sinner, too. Matthew’s friends, the other sinners and tax collectors, gathered to meet Jesus and celebrate Matthew’s new life. Once again, the Pharisees considered Jesus’ actions as sinful, for he was eating with the unclean. Jesus was more concerned about the spiritual than the physical. It did not matter that He was breaking a law because He was doing the intent of God’s law—showing mercy.
Both stories show Jesus offering forgiveness to those in society that were labeled as sinful. The paralyzed man and his friends were commended for their faith and they received the gift of new life by trusting in God. Matthew is not directly commended for faith, but it is obvious in the story that he believes in Jesus because he leaves everything to follow. His faith is a witness to others who want to learn more about his man about which they’ve heard so much. The people who looked toward the law to define the ‘faithful’ is set aside so that true faith can be seen in those that have been rejected in the religious world.
In the next story of our passage, a young ruler comes to Jesus with bad news, “My daughter is dead.” But he has faith. “If you could come and touch her, she will live.” Mark and Luke tell us the man was a leader in the synagogue. The loss of a child, even a girl child, may have been a sign of something wrong in the man’s life. How did he sin that God would take away his child?
Every generation and race of men have mourned their dead, in the case of this girl the funeral was a lavish affair. There were flute-players in attendance, paid to play mournful melodies for the guests. There was also a noisy crowd that was most likely paid to mourn loudly. The more people mourning, the more important the life that was lost. The girl was the daughter of a ruler, a man of wealth who could provide a great funeral in her honor. When Jesus said that the girl was not dead, the people laughed. Who would pay such high prices to have great crowds of mourners if the child were still alive? No one is that foolish.
Though she was dead the young ruler had enough faith to go to Jesus and ask for His mercy. Jesus went willingly to bring life out of death and hope out of mourning. On His way to the man’s house, Jesus was interrupted by a woman in need. Matthew’s version of this story is much shorter than Mark and Luke, but he includes the brief encounter between Jesus and the bleeding woman. In the other stories we hear that she had tried every method, using all her money to find a cure for her illness. Nothing worked. For those who believe disease is a manifestation of a sinful life, her failure to get well was proof that she was unrighteous.
Many people, especially those in the ruling class, might have been upset to have Jesus distracted by an outcast sinner such as her. The young ruler did not hurry Jesus away, however. He had patience while Jesus did for the woman what might be done for the girl—healing and restoration. These are stories about faith, about believing in the amazing God who can and does do the impossible. No one thought the woman could be healed, but a faith-filled touch of His cloak and she was made new. The mourners thought it was ridiculous to say the girl was merely sleeping, but the faith of a father brought the One who could make her new. Just like the paralyzed man and the tax collector, Jesus can, and does, make people new. By faith we are saved. Trusting in God, we will see amazing things: healing, restoration and forgiveness.
There is no hope in the law because there is no guarantee in it. We can do everything right—obey every traffic signal, speed limit and safety code, but we can still be in the wrong place at the wrong time experience suffering.
People who don’t steal become victims of people who do. People who don’t murder become victims of those who do. People who don’t lie or cheat become victims of people who do. Even worse, however, is when we do not have all the information and we make bad decisions that affect our lives. Take, for example, a woman who falls in love with a man who is not what he says he is. They marry and soon after the truth becomes apparent. That woman realizes she has made a bad decision and she decides to get out of the relationship. However, in her marriage ceremony, that woman has made a vow before God, a vow that she now must break. While it is the best thing she can do, breaking the vow is still sin. She could not trust in the law to protect her from what happened. However, she could trust in the promise of grace.
Even though she had to break that vow, God is gracious and merciful. Her sin is not counted against her, for it is by faith that we are saved, not by law. Faith does come with a guarantee—not that everything will be perfect, but that God will be faithful to His promises. We can be assured that our trespasses are forgiven and that our failure to live up to the expectations of the Law will never separate us from the God who gave it to us. Faith puts us in a right relationship with God that the Law could never accomplish because we are imperfect and we will make mistakes—both intentional and accidental. Faith puts our trust in the God who can do the impossible. He created the world out of nothing, gave barren Sarah and aged Abraham a child, made Jesus rise from the dead. He can forgive us our faults and keep us in a right relationship with Him today, tomorrow and always.
It is to this God we owe honor and worship. Duty and sacrifice has a purpose and it is good, but God desires something more. He desires our hearts. He looks for humble submission, confession and goodness. We are reminded by Paul 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? 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 blessings, but because he was living in thankfulness for what God can 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. What is our motivation for doing what we do for God? Where is our heart? Do we share our time and resources in thanksgiving for all that God has done and in thankfulness for all that God can do. Do we share His mercy because we are faithfully living in His mercy? Or do we sacrifice ourselves for all the wrong reasons? Christ comes to heal those who come in faith. He brings 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 anywhere. He doesn’t need our time and money. He desires our joy and our worship. “But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 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 to meet our needs, but to worship Him with our whole hearts.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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