Matthew 09 – Mercy not Sacrifice

Everyone deserves care.

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town.Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

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.”

14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

18 While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples.

20 Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. 21 She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”

22 Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.

23 When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, 24 he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. 25 After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.26 News of this spread through all that region.

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

28 When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

29 Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; 30 and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” 31 But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

32 While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. 33 And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

34 But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus spends some time talking about people’s faith while healing them in this chapter.  He forgives the sins of the paralytic before he heals him, he tells the bleeding woman that her faith has healed her, he straight up asks the blind man if he believes that he, Jesus, can heal him.  Faith is wonderful and can do some amazing, even miraculous, things.  But I want to make something very, very clear: Faith is not a prerequisite to care, and this chapter does not prove otherwise.  Everyone deserves care.  There is a very specific reason Jesus focuses so much on faith and healing in this section.

Framing these questions of belief are two instances of the “teachers” (other learned men of some authority) and the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus.  First they say he blasphemes by forgiving the sins of others.  Which, when you think about it rationally, is kind of out there.  Anyone who forgives someone else’s sin is basically taking on the power of God.  I think it’s a power God wants us to share, because forgiveness is better for everyone involved. But that’s not the only reason Jesus told the paralytic his sins were forgiven.  He was making a point because he knew the teachers were watching.  He straight up tells them “But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth,” and then turns around and lifts the paralytic up.  Jesus is showing those who doubt, whose hearts may be hardened, that he has power over body and soul.  But they don’t listen, because once again at the end of the chapter, instead of being amazed by the miracle of speech being restored to a mute man, the Pharisees say Jesus’ drove the demon out by the power of the “prince of demons.”

Every single one of these healings, including the one where Jesus asked the blind man not to say anything, was watched by or relayed to the Pharisees.  Jesus was making a bold claim that he was the Son of Man, with authority on Earth.  By linking questions of faith with these closely-watched and much talked about healings, Jesus was making it clear that it was through God he was able to do these things.

But I think the part of the chapter we need to focus more on is when Jesus says “it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick…I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  For I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.”  The chapter also closes with Matthew reminding us that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.”  He didn’t ask them what church they went to, or say they needed to come back more sober, or ask what health insurance they’d be using.  He healed them.  He had compassion on them.  He had mercy on them.  He sought out the sinners, including Matthew himself. (Tax collectors, such as Matthew, were often despised due to their corruption, and for siding with the Romans against their own people.  They were more like mobsters than accountants.)  Through Jesus’ mercy, they became believers.  He may have asked a few if they believed to make a point to the Pharisees, but the more important thing is he healed them.  Regardless of station in life-from the completely helpless paralytic to the Synagogue ruler-Jesus healed them.

Forcing someone to believe isn’t leading them to true faith.  Showing compassion, regardless of situation or predicament, in the name of Jesus Christ is a far more effective way to show the world what he is all about.  I remind you again: Jesus tells us plainly, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  We need to show mercy to those who need it.  We don’t have a major leprosy problem anymore, nor do we encounter the demon-possessed on a regular basis (I don’t think), but we still have people that society ignores, belittles, and shoves out of the way: addicts, sex workers, homeless, and those struggling with mental illness are just a few examples.  Instead of looking down our noses at them we need to help them.  This is why I particularly like the Housing First approach to ending homelessness, where homeless individuals are provided housing immediately, and only after that is achieved do they begin addressing issues of substance abuse or mental health from a stable environment.  It’s also why I like Planned Parenthood, because it is made very clear from their mission that they are there to serve women no matter what their situation, not judge them for it.  We need more programs like this, especially in and around the health care industry.

The “sinners” of Jesus’ time often weren’t “sinners” at all, but rather at the mercy of medical ailments we now fully understand.  A woman suffering a bleeding condition and a paralytic man wouldn’t be considered sinners by the majority of society today.  I pray that we are soon able to treat the “sins” of mental illness and addiction as matter-of-factly (and under full, affordable insurance coverage) as hypertension or near-sightedness are currently treated.  And how will that happen?  It will happen faster if more of us are willing to sit with the sinners and tax collectors, as Jesus was.  If we provide them with mercy, instead of sacrificing them to the system, we not only show them that individually they are of value, but also show society at large that everyone matters.  Are you, or is someone close to you effected by homelessness? Sexual violence? Mental illness? Chronic conditions? Addiction? STDs? Then speak up.  Let society know that everyone in these groups is worthy of compassionate, merciful care.  Jesus thought so, so we should, too.

Matthew 08 – Even Jesus…

A reminder for those who have trouble asking for help.

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west,and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.”

18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

28 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes,two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men.34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

There’s a lot that I should probably talk about in this post, but I think all of these stories are repeated in one of the other Gospels, so this post is really more of a note to self. I’m hoping some of you might benefit from it, too.  It is the first story that I kept coming back to.  It made me think, “if Jesus can ask for help, why can’t I?”  Jesus is essentially asking the man that he cured of leprosy for a favor:  “Please, keep quiet about this.”  There could be any number of reasons, according to my NIV notes: he didn’t want his ministry too hindered by a fame that might grow too quickly; he didn’t want to attract attention of the Pharisees too fast. But whatever the reason, Jesus wanted that healing to be kept quiet, and asked for help in keeping it so.

I have a really, really hard time asking for help.  Thank God I have good friends and family who just pitch in without asking. I’m not sure why I have so much trouble asking for help, but I think it’s something many people struggle with.  Nobody wants to be a burden, and, even though I know it’s a fallacy, the idea of sole self-reliance still holds a strong allure for me.  Additionally, asking for help means letting go of control (the clothes might not be folded just the way I do it, or the girls might watch more TV than I normally let them…you get the idea).  Finally, it’s really, really disappointing to ask for help and not get any.  I feel this is particularly true in medical settings.  We’re a relatively healthy family, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of “well, we don’t know what this is, but let us know if it gets worse,” or “there’s not much we can do for that.”  I know it’s impossible to diagnose, or even treat, every cough and cold, but I’m hoping for a little more guidance and suggestions than “we don’t know.”  Especially when I’ve dragged two sick toddlers into a doctor’s office at lunch time because that was the only appointment available.

There may still be some (OK, a lot) of “no’s,” but you’re a lot more likely to get a “yes” if you ask for help than just keep silent.  So my resolution for today is to ask for more help. Then, instead of feeling guilty about it, I’ll be grateful when it comes, hope that I’ll be able to pay it forward down the line, but not stress about that too much, trusting God’s plan.  After all, even Jesus asked for help.

Matthew 7:13-29 – Wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount

In summary: “OK y’all, I just told you what to do. Now go put it into practice.”

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

To summarize these last verses: “Okay y’all, I just told you what to do.  Now go put it into practice.”

I wonder how much Jesus shakes his head and rolls his eyes at us. I can just see him sitting on his celestial throne, groaning “Come on, guys, get it together!” like you would do while watching your team lose because of a series of unforced errors.  Perhaps he leans over to God and says, “I told them.  You saw me tell them, right? I told them exactly what to do, but here we are anyway.”

In all reality I doubt it’s like that, but that is the first image that came to my mind.  What does happen, though, if we chose the wrong path? Listen to the wrong person? Put our faith (aka build our foundation) in the wrong thing?  Does this eternally damn us?  Jesus does say “broad is the road that leads to destruction,” which sounds pretty damn scary.

Here’s my take.  And again, this is just one layperson’s thoughts.  A layperson who isn’t particularly holy, doesn’t have any theological education, and hasn’t even been to that many Bible studies.  But here we go anyway.  I don’t think this life is our last chance.  Think of it like a college class, where your coursework counts for a large chunk of your grade, but so does the final exam.  So of course you want to do well on your coursework, to get that high mark.  But if you’re not doing great, you can still study really hard and do well on the final exam, passing the class.  And, if you have been doing well all semester, you’ll probably do well on the final exam, too.  This life is like the coursework, and our final hearing before God is like the final exam.  The Nicene Creed, which gets recited almost every Sunday at my Episcopal Church, says Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” so I do know he’s coming.  Beyond that, I haven’t read a lot of the Bible that deals with eschatological issues, so I don’t know if this judgement, this final hearing, if you will, is a big, grand Judgement Day or if it happens individually when each of us dies, but the point is we get one final hearing.

This final hearing is the main reason I don’t worry too much about the souls of people who aren’t Christian, why I’m not running around trying to “save” everyone.  To keep with our college class analogy, I’m keeping my eyes on my own work.  There are a lot of Christians out there (apologies for the jab, but mostly conservative and Evangelical) that would do well to remember this, because I believe it is them Jesus is talking about when he says, “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’ ”  Those who claim Christianity, but then deny the rights of others, say hateful things, support hateful leaders, discriminate and belittle all in the “name of Christ” are not true Christians.

I’ve quoted John 13:35 before, where Jesus says “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  So, if someone is spreading love and goodness in the world, even if it isn’t in Jesus’ name, I truly believe that God will see the good work they are doing, and count it in their favor.  It may sound hokey, and I’ll probably piss off some non-Christians with this next bit, but I’m going to say it anyway:  When said person comes before God and Jesus in their final judgment, they will be before God, which means God has revealed Xyrself to them, and they will get the chance to fall down and worship, or pledge their allegiance, or see the truth – whatever you want to call it.  Perhaps there are some that could deny God to Xyr face, in all Xyr glory, Jesus sitting right there, both surrounded by the Holy Spirit, but that would be a pretty magnificent sight to turn away from.

So, does it not matter at all what religion you are?  Or if you even believe in a God at all?  Yes and no.  One more time with our class analogy:  I feel like being Christian gives me a ready-made study guide, like I bought the textbook with the important parts already highlighted and noted.  That doesn’t mean you can’t pass the class without this extra help, it’s just going to be a bit more work to get that A.  But again, what we need to worry about is our own selves, keeping our eyes on our own work and not worrying about the unknowable depths of someone else’s secret heart.  God will know us, and them, by our actions, by our love.  So Jesus’ final assignment for you today, from this lesson called the Sermon on the Mount is to get out there and love one another.  Love the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Love the Salt of the Earth people.  Love those who adhere to a law of love.  Love those who live at peace with their neighbors.  Love those who uphold the rights of women and other minorities.  Show your love through simple promises and nonviolent resistanceLove your enemies, and guard your secret heartDo not worry, for God is with us, Xe alone will judge us, as we have judged.  By doing all this, we have already chosen the small gate and narrow path that leads to life, life everlasting.