7 October 2013Matthew 9:2-13
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” (v. 13)
This remark (verse 13) of Jesus is addressed to the Pharisees. They have been complaining that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (verse 11). For the Pharisees, this is a category mistake: anyone who is good does not associate with evil-doers. When Jesus hears of their complaint he explains his vocation: to be a physician to the sick (verse 12). This requires of him both the ability to tell the difference between good and evil, and the willingness to get involved with people, even at the risk of making himself vulnerable.
The subject of discerning the difference between good and evil has already been introduced (verse 4). The Pharisees think Jesus guilty of blasphemy for claiming to forgive sins. However, according to Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' healing of the paralysed man (verses 6-7) demonstrates that Jesus is not evil, but has the authority of God to do good. So, it is Jesus and not the Pharisees who can accurately tell the difference between good and evil. But Jesus' vocation involves more than that. His description of himself as a physician indicates that he must do more than diagnose from a distance. The business of helping people recognise and let go of what is destructive in their lives so that they can leave it behind means relationship and commitment.
Typically, Jesus points the Pharisees back to their own scriptures: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' is a quotation from Hosea 6:6. In the original Hebrew though 'mercy' is not 'letting people off' from a distance, rather, it is 'steadfast love' (hesed) which is a consistent quality of God's character in dealing with humankind; so here, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that as human beings made in God's image they are to behave with loving kindness towards each other. For us all, this means risking ourselves in relationship in acts of practical care and emotional accompaniment, yet astonishingly (verse 8) it may also mean our getting involved in the releasing of people from their sins. What amazes the crowd here is not Jesus' authority to forgive and to heal but the realisation that human beings who are tuned into God's power for good can be channels of God's forgiveness also.
- Can you recall a time when you have risked your own reputation, feelings or resources to reach out to someone? How did that feel? What did you learn?
- If someone challenges a destructive behaviour of yours, how does the impact differ if it comes from someone who keeps their distance, compared with someone who has already demonstrated their commitment and belief in you?
- Who has the authority to forgive sins? Have you ever declared God's forgiveness to anyone? What was the impact?