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For Such A Time As This: Mercy, Not Sacrifice
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
25 September 2022
I was in the U.S. preparing for my intensive classes in late August when the Prime Minister made his National Day rally speech, and announced plans for the repeal of 377A. It’s been about a month since that announcement and I was wondering how you are feeling in the midst of this long-awaited repeal of 377A? Whether you are an ally, a silent observer or a member of the lgbtq+ community, I’m sure this news probably brought up some thoughts and feelings for you.
For me, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it because while I am glad and thankful this unjust law is finally slated for repeal in Singapore, the ever-rising voices of religious conservatives calling for the protection of the “family” is jarring and painful. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and queer people have families too. We all love and value our families in the same way. Love is what makes a family.
Some lgbtq+ folks have asked me before why I continue to be a Christian when Christianity has caused so much harm to those on the margins of society. I have thought deeply about this question and I realize the reason why I’m still a Christian is because of Jesus — who he is, what he has done, and what he stands for. In Jesus, we catch a glimpse of God with us. But not only that. We also witness the lengths to which God’s love is willing to go.
And we see that in our scripture today. So let me read to you from Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26.
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 (NRSV)
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
10 And as he sat at dinner[a] in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting[b] with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.
Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21 for she was saying to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that moment.
When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26 And the report of this spread through all of that district.
So in this passage, we see Matthew the tax collector who became one of Jesus’ disciples. Then there was woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, interspersed with the story of the raising back to life of the leader’s daughter. As I was meditating on this passage, I realized that although they were different kinds of situations, there was a common thread that ran through them.
And this common thread is that Jesus shows himself as the Great Disruptor.
Matthew the tax collector was perceived by the Pharisees as a sinner and undeserving of Jesus’ friendship and fellowship. Tax collectors were social outcasts among Jews because they were seen as collaborators with Roman imperial authorities.
By calling Matthew into the community of disciples when Jesus told him, “Follow me” and by eating with him and other tax collectors and sinners, Jesus disrupts social and religious norms and reorders social and communal relationships by including the excluded. In his interaction with Matthew and those the religious community ostracized, Jesus shows how it’s not only possible, but necessary, to disrupt harmful social and religious norms. Who are those today who are excluded by harmful social and religious norms?
And then there was the bleeding woman. The bleeding woman would have been considered unclean according to Jewish purity laws and she would have been shunned by her community. For 12 years…that’s how long she has suffered this ailment and isolation from others. Can you imagine? People avoiding you because you are considered unclean, and you have been struggling alone and afraid, not knowing if this bleeding will ever stop. Whether you have experienced menstruation or not, can you imagine bleeding continually for 12 years with all its attendant symptoms?
This woman had been suffering for too long and she wanted to be made well. She needed to be made well. To be restored to wholeness, to community. She had been following Jesus among the crowds that were almost crushing him. And she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, just the tassels of his garment, I will be made well.” Such faith! Like the religious leader who had begged Jesus to lay his hand on his daughter so that she would live. That same faith! They believed all they needed was a touch from Jesus. A moment of connection that would completely change their lives. “If I only touch the tassels of his garment…”
ἅψωμαι (haptomai): Touch
háptomai (from 681 /háptō, “to modify or change by touching”) – properly, “touching that influences” (modifies); touching someone (something) in a way that alters (changes, modifies) them, i.e. “impact-touching.”
In this case, it was the woman who reached out to touch Jesus first, believing that this touch would change her physical, social and spiritual condition, and she would be made well. She believed that with all her heart even as she reached out to touch Jesus. Jesus turned, and seeing her, he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”
Although Matthew is very succinct with his words and description, I can imagine Jesus’ eyes as he looked at her with great compassion. Perhaps he reached out and took her hand as he said these words, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”
I always thought it was a little strange that Jesus referred to her as “daughter.” Jesus couldn’t have been older than her. In fact, she was probably older than Jesus. I think Jesus addressed her as “daughter” not only to express the feeling of kinship but also as a gentle reminder that
she is a daughter of God, no matter what people around her have said to her. Nothing will ever change that fact. Jesus was reaffirming her status as beloved and acceptable to God, and that God cared about her and her situation. She has not been abandoned or forgotten.
The third encounter was with the leader’s daughter. Matthew notes that there were “flute players” among the mourners at the house (9:23). Why flute players? At that time, social custom dictated that even the poorest people in Israel had to have at least two flute players at a funeral. So the presence of the flute-players confirms that the girl had already died. That’s why the crowd laughed with scorn at Jesus when he told them to go away because she was not dead but sleeping. And he proved them wrong by going into the room, taking her by the hand, and by his touch that has the power to change people and situations, the girl got up.
Do you touch people’s lives in a way that changes them for the better? In a way that gives them life? That draws them into healing and community? That’s the kind of disruptor Jesus is.
Jesus disrupted so no one would be left behind. Jesus disrupted so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, nationality, socio-economic background, etc. would know they are equally beloved and cherished in God’s eyes.
But Jesus didn’t just disrupt.
Jesus was also the Great Restorer. He did not just disrupt situations that brought harm, ostracism, and death. He restored people to life, community and well-being.
In each story, Jesus takes hold of what is considered “impure” (the ostracized tax collector, the bleeding woman, the dead body) and restores them to life, community and well-being, demonstrating his heart of mercy and compassion.
In his interactions with Matthew the tax collector, we see Jesus disrupting ostracism and challenging mindsets of who is included. In his contact with the bleeding woman, we see him publicly disrupting ostracism and illness, and restoring her to wholeness, physically and socially. And in his tender moments with the daughter of the leader, we see him disrupting death and disbelief.
He did all these so the ones whom he encountered may be made well and whole, i.e. restored to life, community and well-being.
Even today, many of us have witnessed and experienced God’s work of disruption and restoration in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones.
Question 1 (Open)
In what ways have you witnessed or experienced God’s work of disruption and restoration in your life?
We continue to have hope even in the most challenging circumstances because we know we worship a God who has the power to disrupt and restore. God is still able to speak life into situations and hearts that seem dead. God is still able to disrupt oppression and marginalization, and restore people to community and well-being.
And as followers of Christ, we are called to this sacred work too – we are mini disruptors and restorers.
At the heart of this Gospel passage, Jesus says something very important that is core to our work of disrupting and restoring.
This one verse from the prophets is something Jesus quotes twice in Matthew so I figure it must be significant. He tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt 9:13) Although he’s speaking to the Pharisees, I suspect this is something Jesus would say to us too.
Jesus is actually quoting from Hosea 6:6 in the Hebrew Bible. Hosea, centuries earlier, had condemned the Jews for trying to excuse their idolatry and their oppression of the poor by offering the prescribed animal sacrifices.
Hosea 6:6 (NKJV)
For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and
the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
Hosea 6:6 (NRSV)
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
In the Hebrew, what God wants is hesed— steadfast love, faithful love, covenant love.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early church and many Jews in the first century used, that word was translated “mercy.”
Ἔλεος (Eleos): Tender mercy, compassion, loving-kindness
ḥe·seḏ: Loving-kindness, steadfast love (Hosea 6:6)
Sacrifice is necessary sometimes. Last week, Miak spoke about how as stewards, we have been entrusted with the care of the earth and all creation, and sometimes in order to care better for the earth and other living creatures, we do need to make sacrifices.
But God desires for us to go beyond the level of obligation, beyond the level of sacrifice, to love. That is what mercy means.
What God wanted from Israel and what God wants from us is a heart in alignment with God’s heart. A heart that loves so much that sacrifice drops out of our vocabulary.
Hosea wasn’t the only prophet who spoke about how God desire our hearts more than our sacrifices.
Amos also said:
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:22-24)
Writing about the same time, the prophet Micah asked:
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).
When you see these verses, I wonder if they remind you of anyone?
The Amos and Micah passages were some of Rev Yap’s favourite Bible passages, and we would hear him refer to them often. Some of you didn’t get a chance to meet Rev Yap while he was alive. He was the first Asian bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia. In his later years after he retired, he felt led to speak up for the lgbtq+ community in Singapore, and he wrote a letter to the newspaper, the Straits Times. That was how FCC members knew about him and his stand, and they made arrangements to meet with him.
You’ll hear more about his story next week during our church anniversary service. But a few years ago before he passed, I remember once telling him, “Rev Yap, thank you so much for all the sacrifices you and your family made in order to stand with us.” He looked at me thoughtfully, like he was pondering what I was saying, and then he replied, “I don’t think of it as a sacrifice.”
At that time, I thought he was just being humble. But now I think I understand better what he meant. It was not a sacrifice to him because he had gone beyond the level of sacrifice to love. He was doing it out of compassion, steadfast love, loving-kindness, mercy.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus said.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).
Are you willing to do the same?
Are you willing to disrupt situations that bring harm, ostracism and death, and will you participate in the work of restoring people and situations, including all creation back to life, wholeness and well-being?
Question 2 (Word Cloud)
In what areas do you feel led to participate in the work of disruption and restoration?
Today, Jesus is telling us, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ May the foundation for our sacred work of disrupting and restoring be steadfast love, loving-kindness, mercy and compassion.
Will you join me in a word of prayer?