An Invitation to a Mercy Party

My sermon at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), September 22nd, 2013.  

Being a teacher, I must say, I know an assignment when I see one.  And our text today contains an assignment.  Jesus, the teacher, is asked a question – and then he gives an assignment. Listen to the text and see if you can hear it.

From Matthew chapter 9: 9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

We don’t really know what happened when the Pharisees walked away from Jesus.  The rest of Matthew’s Gospel indicates that they didn’t really fulfill their assignment:  go learn the meaning of mercy.  Perhaps when they walked away, one of the Pharisees offered to google it on his iphone.  Maybe another one grabbed a dictionary.  Mercy – what does it mean?

Mercy – We used to play a game in elementary school that we called Mercy – where kids would see who could stand having their hands folded backwards the longest.  So, after you couldn’t take it anymore, you would say, “mercy!” – and they had to let go.

Mercy – We talk about in sports too.  If a team gets ten goals ahead in soccer, there’s a mercy rule, and the game is called early, to be merciful to the losing team.

When I was growing up in the south, we would say “mercy me” when we meant “wow” or “I’ll be darned.”

Mercy -I learned this on the internet–is the brand name of a hangover prevention beverage. Mercy me.

You’ve probably visited a hospital with the name Mercy.  There are Mercy-inspired hospitals all around.

The urban dictionary defines mercy as the one thing Chuck Norris does not know the meaning of.

With all these nuances of mercy, it seems like we ought to know what it means.  It seems like we ought to know it when we see it. But, like the Pharisees at Matthew’s party, sometimes we human beings want to settle for a dictionary definition. We want something we can measure. Something we can quantify.  We want mercy to be reasonable and logical and sensible.  We prefer measurable transactions – like sacrifices on the altar, like 10% tithes.  We would prefer Jesus to give us a multiple-choice exam rather than an indeterminate essay assignment – like go learn what mercy means.  Carol, my fellow professor, how will a teacher objectively grade an assignment like that?

In our text about mercy, the focus is on Matthew, the tax collector. In the New Testament, tax collectors are the worst of the worst kind of characters – tax collectors were guilty of taking bribes, they were contaminated by association with the monster Rome– hands dirty with dirty money bearing the Emperor’s likeness, so close to Gentiles that the Gentile could be smelled on them.

Just look who tax collectors get lumped with in Matthew’s Gospel.  Tax collectors and sinners here in chapter 9 and again in 11. Tax collectors and pagans in chapter 18.  Tax collectors and prostitutes in chapter 21. Everyone knows that bad company corrupts good morals. It makes no human sense that Jesus chose a tax collector to be one of the twelve.  He may as well have chosen a pagan or a prostitute.

Just imagine what it’s like to be Matthew: One day he is sitting at his tax collector’s booth, wearing fancy clothes bought with poor people’s tax money, he is sitting in his booth with a big pile of coins – he looks all devious and calculating. He’s used to being invisible to “the good people,” like rabbis and their disciples.  They usually pass him by on the other side of the road, keeping their distance.

But, then Jesus, the teacher, the respected rabbi, comes along and not only speaks to Matthew but calls him to become his disciple, and Matthew actually says yes. The text indicates he doesn’t second-guess himself.  He just got up and followed him.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1621

It’s one of those moments in the gospel where the writer is saying to us readers, “Stop.  Look at this illogical moment.  Write this down as your definition of mercy.  An invitation for a most unlikely candidate to join the mission of God.  Aha.  This is mercy.”

But the short little story of Matthew’s calling doesn’t stop there.  It just keeps on defining mercy.  “What does it mean to receive mercy?” the text seems to say, “it means throwing a party.”

Let’s imagine this party at Matthew’s house:  The way I picture it, Matthew had a nice house.  He was a tax collector – they were rich.  And in the scene we’re talking about here, it’s not like they went into a fenced-in backyard in the suburbs.  They were probably in a courtyard.  People all around could see the festivities, could see who was there.  I imagine Matthew’s guest list was a topic of conversation among the neighbors like it was for the Pharisees.

In my neighborhood, people tend to notice who we’re having over for dinner parties- when visiting cars are in our driveway. When John and I first moved into our house, I remember one of my neighbors eventually getting the nerve to ask, “Why do you have all those cars at your house all the time?  Are those your relatives?”  John and I hang out with college students, and they tend to have old, as they would say, crappy cars.  So every week or so, six or eight $1,000 cars pulled up into our driveway, and the neighbors wondered what kind of people we were hanging out with. They wondered about the guest list at our house. “Ohh, college students.  Now I see, said the neighbor.” (with some amount of relief).

Sharing a meal was an especially sensitive issue in the culture of Jesus’ day, even more than it is for us today, because it declared a person’s class. You were only supposed to eat with people in your social and religious class.  You were not supposed to eat with people who were below you. And, Matthew’s class was below the class of, well, just about everyone.

So, on this evening, I’m sure the neighbors were watching the coming and going at the party at Matthew’s house.  And they were sizing up the caliber and the purity of Matthew’s guests.

But at this party, Matthew no longer fits the stereotype of a hated tax collector.  We get a glimpse of mercy as we see Matthew sitting at the feet of Jesus, not only learning what mercy means for himself but giving mercy, sharing mercy, inviting others to the mercy party.  Matthew, the disciple of Jesus, is now a conduit of mercy.  If he accepted mercy for himself and clutched it to himself, it wouldn’t be a story that defines mercy.  Matthew left his selfish way of living, and now, as a participant in God’s mission, mercy flows through him.  “This,” the text says, “this is mercy.  Freely you have received. Freely you give.”

Mercy: there’s no simple definition for it.  How can we explain, how can we describe, a word that can have the connotation of a hangover beverage and at the same time describe the compassionate action of God in this world?

I tend to think of mercy, not as one particular event but as God’s long, tender strategy to reconcile with us, his loving kindness extended to human beings.  By the mercy of God, we are reconciled – and we become ambassadors of reconciliation.  Conduits of mercy.

Sometimes it’s helpful to define a concept with a metaphor.  So, here’s one I came up with for mercy:  I  grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and I’ll never forget what it was like when my Dad taught me the miracle of gardening. I told him I wanted to be like him, I wanted to grow something, so he went to the kitchen cabinet in his straightforward, no-nonsense manner and broke open a plain old bag of pinto beans, and then he showed me how to get my dirt ready and make straight rows with haybail twine before dropping those beans into the dirt. I was hooked a week or two later when those beans had morphed into plants that broke through the ground and opened their little green arms to the sun.  I gave them names.  My little babies.

But, then, that particular year, the spring rain stopped.  And the scorching Arkansas sun beat down on my little miracles, and every day they looked more and more pathetic.  One night was cool, and we got a light drizzle, so in the morning, the plants perked up a little and my hopes were lifted.  But, by noon the hot sun came back and burned away the moisture – it was like the plants were frying in the sun – worse than before the misty rain.  My Daddy explained how that little bit of rain couldn’t soak down to the roots. It was a shallow remedy, a deceptive drink of water.

That’s how some people show mercy, says the OT prophet, Hosea.  Like morning dew gone before noon, shallow mercy, false mercy, mercy that doesn’t cost anything, mercy that stays on the surface and doesn’t soak in deep.  It’s not real mercy.

The kind of mercy God is looking for – it soaks to the roots.  Write that down in your dictionary under mercy.

God’s mercy is not for shallow people who take shortcuts when they show mercy.  It the old days of Hosea, the Israelites would get dressed up in religious clothes and walk to the temple with a religious walk and talk the religious talk and make a religious sacrifice in the temple.  Sacrifices, you see, were measurable. Quantifiable.

Then they would leave the temple and exploit and manipulate and hate their neighbors.  Their mercy was like dew on the grass gone by noon.  They were not conduits of mercy.  They were sponges of mercy. And when mercy is left inside a sponge, it begins to stink. “Write that down in your definition of mercy,” Hosea seems to say.  “Don’t try to keep mercy for yourself.  Mercy is not like dew on the grass gone by noon.”

I’m still learning what mercy is – I’m still making entries in my personal dictionary definition.  Part of the very definition of mercy is that it’s a deep, ongoing, experience of God’s loving kindness – and we learn what it is when we do it more than when we talk about it or try to look it up in a dictionary.

Mercy is throwing parties for pagans and prostitutes.  Mercy is seeing people who otherwise go unseen. Mercy is hanging out with the sick instead of the healthy.  Mercy says a lot about who we eat with.  Mercy comes to us with a calling, like Matthew – we are called to lives of mercy.  Mercy is the greatest dinner party invitation of all times – Won’t you please join God’s tender strategy of reconciliation?

Learning mercy, you see, is all at once an ever so simple and ever so complex assignment. Because mercy, at its core, is loving like our God loves.

May we be people of mercy.

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About Sara Barton

I’ve long loved God’s Word, and this blog will express a life immersed in God’s ongoing story. I’m thankful that my husband, John, and my kids, Nate and Brynn, are in the story with me. I teach Religion and English courses at Rochester College in Michigan. Before moving to Michigan, I served on a church-planting team in Jinja, Uganda. My book, A Woman Called, was released May 2012.
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