Matthew 12, 1-8
This incident in Matthew’s Gospel is very troubling, and it is the first of two stories unfolding and revealing an important part of the Gospel’s Good News. The second story which comes right after these verses tells of Jesus curing a man with a withered hand in the Synagogue on Sabbath. It is as though Matthew wants to drive home the point. The Pharisees are growing more and more furious and impatient with Jesus. The rhetoric is heating up and the hostility can no longer be disguised as curiosity or interest. This man and his teaching are a direct challenge to their very way of life; he poses a threat to law and order.
Now there is a big difference between external and internal realities. We know this to be true, and we feel it sometimes when they get out synch or do not match up. It causes a lot of dis-ease in us. We like things to be in balance. “What you see is what you get.” This is comfortable and we like it to be so. We do not feel right when the way we look is not the way we feel, unless we are hiding something or living in denial. We do not trust or like to be around others who look good, but somehow do not seem to be good. Most of us like order and the predictability that it provides. We like rules. We make them all the time. We pride ourselves on being a nation that finds consistent stability in the “rule of law.” That is, of course, until that law is inconvenient. Then we begin looking and hoping for loop-holes. The Pharisees were the rule keepers and sometimes the rule makers. They were “church police” who went around teaching the rules and enforcing them. They liked the rules. It was for them, and for that matter, for everyone, the way to be perfect, to be saved, to be holy and to be identified as a good person and a Son of Abraham. The problem was that there were so many rules that hardly anyone who had a real job could keep track of them all; but never mind, the Pharisees could do that for you. Breaking the laws meant you were out. Keeping the laws meant you were in. There were 39 laws or rules about the Sabbath! Moses only had Ten Commandments, but the Pharisees have 39 laws about just one of the ten! This is serious rule inflation, and it was a serious matter that led to a lot of fear and guilt, judgment and probably way too much condemnation. The Joy of the Covenant established by the Commandments of Moses, which revealed so much about God, was reduced to a great deal of anxiety on the part of the people, because of power and threat, fear and control on the part of the Pharisees. Into this steps Jesus of Nazareth.
What the law actually forbids was harvesting on Sabbath. Now you look at this scene and wonder if picking a grain of wheat and chewing on it constitutes the harvest. This is ridiculous, we can say from this distance, but we are not caught up in this system. The Pharisees use the law as a means of judging and condemning others which has become for the people a heavy burden. The Pharisees judge people. It puts a burden of guilt upon the guiltless. Jesus comes along and his judgment is on actions, not people. He is about setting people free, forgiving sins of people who do not keep the rules as the Pharisees see them. This begins to raise an important question: what are the rules for? For Jesus, the law is to be used to establish one’s vocation, to discover what one should do in a specific circumstance in order to fulfill God’s Will. The law, as God intended it, was to help us know who we are and know what God asks of us. From the behavior of Jesus, time after time, and episode after episode, we see that all God wants is mercy.
Here is where the conflict arises between external and internal realities. Jesus did not approve of keeping the law when doing so brought one into conflict with God’s Will and God’s desire for mercy. The scriptures are full of those stories: the man left on the side of the road by robbers, the woman taken in adultery, the next story of a man with a withered hand. During that incident Jesus brings up the example of an ox falling into a pit on the Sabbath. An ox was essential to one’s life and livelihood. By leaving it in the pit, he risks losing the ox. It could die. Without the ox, the man could not cultivate the field and feed his family. Leave it in the pit because the law says so, or get it out. There is the external and internal conflict.
Jesus comes proclaiming mercy. When mercy and keeping the rules collide, which one informs our decision? This is what Matthew is working through at this point of his Gospel. It is an essential issue for the privileged disciples of Jesus. Superficial external compliance to the law makes one pleasing to God is what the Pharisees say. They are always making judgments, and their error is that they judge people instead of actions. Judgments, my friends, must be about acts, never about people. Mercy takes us completely out of the business of judgments which is external. Mercy, on the other hand, is an internal reality requiring a new attitude of mind and heart. It looks to the person not to the rule. Eleos is the Greek word for mercy. It is the same word for “compassion.” Eleos means looking kindly on the sufferings of others. This is exactly what God is, Mercy. God looked upon the misery of our separation from God, saw our sin and its consequences, and sent His only son to become like us, to suffer with us (com-passion), and lift us up into his mercy.
The purpose of the Law was to restore the relationship between God and Man that had been broken by sin. What is revealed in these verses is that Jesus is the new Law. It is Jesus who restores the relationship between God and Man. This is what he means when he says: I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. The Temple, until the time of Christ, was the place on earth where the human and the divine met to commune. Now they meet in Jesus Christ. “There is something greater than the Temple here,” he says to them. But they like it the old way. They do not want to think about mercy and compassion, they want the rules. It is a lot easier. It is a quick and easy way to self-justification. “I kept the rules” is all they need to say. Yet we all know deep down inside that just keeping the rules does not really accomplish anything. It’s like the child who says: “I didn’t do anything.” It is almost a self-condemning claim. “I did nothing” is the message!
Now with Jesus, the law is no longer the standard of perfection or the way to holiness. We all know how it is possible to be rule keepers and yet be cruel and selfish, self-justified sorry representatives of God’s mercy and love. Failure comes from what is not done while keeping the law. This is the risk of becoming nothing more than law-keepers. Those called to follow Christ have something more than the law motivating a moral life. They have a constant living awareness of the goodness and the mercy of God, desiring to live a worthy humble response to God’s presence and God’s call. A truly moral person is not someone who keeps the law, but someone who seeks to discover the will of God. “What would you have me do?” This is the question they ask in the face of every decision. These people no longer turn to the rules to determine what is right and what is good, what is just or what is best. They discern what it is that God wills and wishes for creation and for those who live in God’s presence.
We can go wrong by following the rules, but we can’t go wrong be discerning the will of God. The law is not enough. It is not that the law is wrong, it is simply not enough. Without a Spirit filled life that seeks to live in God’s presence and seeks to fulfill God’s will by the decisions of that life, one cannot be good and pleasing and perfect.
One can offer sacrifices all day long and never experience a change of heart, because external actions do not produce internal transformation even if that is their intended purpose. Our behavior must be a sign of an interior love of God and our desire to do God’s will. That brings a merciful heart.
We who live by the Spirit are being transformed. We are not conformed. Being conformed to this age leads us to avoid what is difficult and troublesome, to avoid service and sacrifice. Transformation leads us into Christ, into Christ’s way which was to do and follow the Will of the Father. It is the only way to holiness, asking what God desires. It is the only norm for morality, doing what the Father wills. It becomes then the only way to distinguish those who belong to this age, and those who belong to the age to come. When you do something just because you can that is a suspicious sign that you are conforming to this age, which never considers anything except what it wants to do because we can. However, when we do something because we consider it to be the will of God and what God desires for us, we have begun to discover what it means to be called by Christ.
So what is it to be for us? The easy way to nowhere: keeping the rules and not being troubled by mercy or the suffering of others? This is where Jesus steps in. He troubles the rule-keepers who question his judgment about Levi, a Tax collector, or about disciples picking grains of wheat. What he teaches and how he lives is a morality rooted in mercy, not in law, because the face of God which he reveals is the face of mercy.
This lesson bears frequent repetition until we get it right. In our retelling of these stories of mercy, we find ourselves reliving this behavior. We have no business hiding in the kind of superficial morality that is self-protecting and self-serving. As I just said, it is easier to keep the rules than look past them or look into the face of suffering. Easier to just go to church, get it over with, and go home rather than learn the meaning of mercy. It is easier to lock up drug offenders and single moms than figure out the cause of their misery and suffering that led them to the drugs in the first place. It is easier to say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys than make a significant change in one’s life, attitude, or thinking. It is easier to throw some pocket change or a couple of bucks in the collection than make a life changing, loving, grateful commitment to stewardship and tithing. It is easier to break up families and deport the so called “illegal” than to do something about the misery, fear, and danger they flee.
The Jesus we find in these Gospels is Mercy incarnate. “Go and learn the meaning of it,” he says to us. To Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi, you and me, he says: “Follow Me.” It is not an invitation to take a walk. It is an opportunity to learn mercy. What we must learn is that mercy is not a single act. It is a way of life for privileged disciples of Jesus. It gives hope when it seems like there is none. Mercy is not something we ask for nearly as much as something we give and something we become.
We are Levi people, like the man in last night’s story, busy at our jobs, sitting at our desks, moving money around, taking all we can get however we can get it. I think Levi was just waiting for Jesus to come by. He gets up all too quickly, if you remember the story. I think he was ready and waiting for the call, and when invited to follow Jesus it was no invitation to go somewhere, but an invitation to learn the meaning of mercy, which is not an intellectual exercise or a rational argument. It is a matter of following along watching and listening to Jesus in action and then ever so slowly become mercy-filled ourselves. When that day comes, and this could be it, we will never be like those Pharisees standing around a woman, accusing and judging her. We will put down the rocks with which we might righteously stone others. We will stop the laughter that sometimes mocks mercy as “soft”, remembering that we all are in need of mercy and there is plenty to go around if we will just give what we expect and so desire to receive. The harvest we must reap in this vineyard, which we are so privileged to tend, is a harvest of mercy.
As we close tonight, I would ask you to pray with me repeating after me this prayer:
“Divine Savior, do not let me be conformed to this world, but transform me into yourself. May my hands be your hands. May my words be your words. Grant that everything I do may serve to glorify you. Above all, transform my soul and all its powers, that my memory, my will, my affections may be the memory, the will and the affections of you. Open my eyes to see your face beside me, open my home to be your dwelling place, come to my table and feed the hungry. Teach me mercy, and sustain my hope. Take from me all that is not of you. Grant that I may live only in you, by you and for you so that I may say in faith: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”