Lent 2 Rev. Candasu Vernon Cubbage
“Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me. Ah, things ain't what they used to be.” Marvin Gaye sang this back in 1971. But these words still ring true today. Things just aren’t the same as they used to be.
We used to get together inside buildings and living rooms to talk, laugh, and eat together. But then the pandemic arrived and that changed. It wasn’t safe for us to do that anymore. Some of us thought that after a few weeks, a few months at the most, everything would go back to the way it was before. In the meantime, we were isolated. That got old really quickly, so some of us formed small groups of family or friends that we felt we could trust to stay safe. We limited our contact to only those who were in these small groups. Some people called those groups PODS because it was like being enclosed in a protective space where we could remain safe until our lives went back to the way they used to be. But life hasn’t gone back to the way it used to be, not entirely. Lord, have mercy.
The reality is that we were dividing ourselves into small groups of people we trusted - into pods - long before the pandemic. We put up walls that kept others out with the hope that this would keep us safe. Safe from different ideas, or different customs. Safe from those who would try to drag us down to their level. Safe from sinners.
We did not welcome outsiders inside our homes or our neighborhoods, or our organizations. If these outsiders somehow made it inside, we would often shun them or make them uncomfortable enough that they would leave and hopefully not come back. We set up all kinds of rules to make inclusion in our pods difficult, if not impossible.
This is the opposite of hospitality. This is the opposite of welcome into a community. This is the opposite of compassion.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus never scolds or criticizes sinners. He doesn’t even demand their repentance. He simply eats and drinks with them.
This is hospitality. This is welcome into a community. This is compassion.
Jesús es ejemplo de hospitalidad. Es ejemplo de dar bienvenida. Es compasión.
Jesus declared to the people, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” “Blessed” in Aramaic means on the right track or on God’s path. So those who are merciful are on the right track. They are on the path that God has set before them. Jesus is calling us to be merciful.
But mercy is not simply feeling compassion. Mercy exists when someone actually does something to alleviate distress.
According to the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, who is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, “Christians like those who wrote the New Testament, probably knew very little Hebrew. They were Hellenized - they grew up speaking, writing, reading, and possibly praying in Greek.
[The Greek word for “mercy” is EH-le-os.]
“Christians who came from Jewish backgrounds would have connected the Greek word for mercy with “covenant loyalty” and “steadfast love” of God for God’s people. They would have heard Jesus saying, ‘[Blessed] are those who show steadfast love, or covenant loyalty, for the same will be shown to them.”
“Christians who came from Gentile backgrounds [who were not as familiar with the writings of the Psalms and the Prophets] would have heard this beatitude very differently. Since they would have grown up with Roman philosophy, that would have connected EH-le-os with the Latin word that meant “pity” or “clemency” for one who deserves to be punished.
“For these Christians, who were not on the mountain with Jesus, but who would become the leaders of the early church, this beatitude would sound more like this: ‘[Blessed] are those who show pity or clemency, for the same will be shown to them.”
“The early church was a multicultural mix, [much like Beechmont Presbyterian Church]. These definitions combined together created something that preserved a little of each culture. Mercy was to take pity and show both clemency and favor to those in need in a way that demonstrated an ongoing covenant loyalty or faithfulness to them. One who shows mercy feels the suffering of another when faced with their pain, takes action on behalf of that person, and demonstrates ongoing dedication to that person beyond the initial crisis.”
Mercy has three steps to it.
Step 1: ”I see the need”—that’s recognition.
Step 2: “I am moved by the need”—that’s motivation.
Step 3: “I move to meet the need”—that’s action.
Let’s put today’s scripture reading in context. At the time of this story, Jesus was living in Capernaum. One day as Jesus was walking in the town, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the place where people came to pay their taxes to Rome. And Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” And immediately, Matthew stood up and followed Jesus.
Soon after that as Jesus was having dinner in the house, he realized that Matthew was not the only one to join them for dinner. There were many tax-collectors and sinners who came and were having dinner with him and his disciples. Back then people generally didn’t associate with tax collectors and other kinds of sinners if they could help it.
In fact, they did everything they could to separate themselves from people who might pass on their diseases or afflictions, or who might try to lead them astray, or try to change the way things were being done.
Most people formed a pod around themselves. They preferred to associate primarily with those who were in their pod. They would only eat with those who had been admitted to the pod. They kept away as far as possible from anyone who was not in their pod. Tax collectors were considered collaborators with the Roman occupiers. The tax collectors made their living by adding on fees to the taxes they collected. Often they piled on huge fees which were truly a burden to the taxpayers. Tax collectors, along with other sinners, were not allowed into the pods of decent, faithful people.
When Jesus invited Matthew to follow him and be part of his group, it was shocking to Matthew who was not used to being included in the pod of anyone who wasn’t a tax collector or considered a sinner. It made him even more curious to know more about Jesus and the way of life that Jesus taught.
When other tax collectors saw and heard how Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners, and even ate with them, they wanted to know more about this unusual rabbi. So they also came to dinner to see and hear what Jesus and his disciples were all about.
When the Pharisees realized this was going on, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’
But when Jesus heard this, he said, “Those who are strong have no need of a healer. It is those who are sick or weak or on the wrong track who need a healer. You go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call into repentance those who are already on the right path. I have come to call those who have missed the mark and who are living in weakness.”
When Jesus declared, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, he was quoting Hosea 6:6 which says: “For I desire hesed and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Hesed is a Hebrew word which means both steadfast love and mercy. The word of the Lord to Hosea was: God desires steadfast love, the kind of love that God promised us in the covenant God made with us. And God desires mercy. God would rather have us give steadfast love and mercy than to make sacrifices.
God desires that we feel compassion and recognize the needs of others, no matter who they are or where they come from or how they worship. God desires that we recognize the needs of others, that we are moved by those needs and motivated to do something. God desires that we take action to meet those needs and keep taking action as long as the needs exist.
Jesus knew that the people he was reaching out to were crying out in lament, “Oh, mercy, mercy me, things aren't what they used to be.” They wanted mercy, they wanted compassion, they wanted their needs to be met, they wanted action and not just talk. They wanted things to be the way they used to be.
But Jesus did not come to return our lives to what they used to be. Jesus came to lead us into a life that is so much better than what used to be. Jesus calls us to live lives that are filled with steadfast love and with mercy - filled with the mercy of God, and the mercy that we in turn show to all those around us as we live together in the Kingdom of God.
Let it be so. Amen