“Why does your Teacher eat with those traitorous tax collectors and other publicly known sinners?” It is an interesting question from this week’s Gospel (Matthew 9.9-13 for St. Matthew’s Day). It is often assumed in our faith that because we are formed in God’s image, we are like God and therefore, God must be like us. The ways in which Jesus acts and speaks, the ways in which he loves and heals are totally different from us. This is seen most clearly in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
The cross and death of Jesus shows us how God acts, how God brings salvation to us. The Cross also shows us who we are and it is not a pretty picture. God in the Old Testament rejects the kind of religion that allows for someone to praise God with fine sounding prayers and great but allows the heart to remain empty and far away for the realities of how God sees us and how God is at work in the word, especially through his own Son. The question posed above operates on an assumption: that God has to act in the same ways that the very religious do. This is an assumption not only of the religious elite, it is also an belief of those who are not involved with organized religion. This is why Jesus challenges those around him to, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’”
It is more important, as I understand it, for us as people of faith, to be people who are active in offering mercy. What that means is we are willing to go and seek out the least, the last and the lost and stand between them and their impending disasters and call them, draw them to yourself. We do this so that we can have the opportunity to show compassion and in doing that, to show them who Jesus is for us and who Jesus wants to be for them.
What is the better faith? To offer and empty sacrifice and think one’s self safe and righteous before a holy God or consider the blessing of being merciful, risking one’s own life – remember the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
The Gospel this Sunday is for the Church; to get us to question our loyalties and priorities. The Gospel challenges the long held prejudices about neighbours and strangers we find both outside and even more inside the Church. We need to offer God, the neighbour, the stranger, and each other a superior religion, than that which we have offered in the past. We need to learn what it is to be merciful and sacrificial, first for God and then for neighbour. We need to learn what it means to live a life in Christ that is going to enable and encourage others around us to live that kind of life with us and for others. We need to offer the same grace, mercy and blessing that continue to transform our lives as we await the day of Jesus Christ. If we go on and read the rest of the chapter, we see what we need to do – restore, heal, forgive and when necessary, raise the dead even thought those around us are going to scoff and laugh at us to scorn.
Who are the least, the last and the lost of this city? Who are the shunned people of our congregation that need to be called back to the life at the Table? Perhaps we are “the community of no consequence” in the eyes of the world because we are seen as weak, uniformed, and useless but that is not how God sees us. Maybe we are the gathering of the unwanted and the unpopular but that does not remove our identity in Christ. And who just are we? We are his called, his chosen, and his sent people. We are God’s people and we are powerful in the eyes of the Almighty Father. God can do through us more than we can ask or even begin to imagine.
Why does Jesus eat with traitors and sinners? Because he calls them home to the Table and to the Great Wedding feast. He calls those who will listen and who will live at the Table and eat a merciful meal and not just think of themselves.