Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Conversion is the heart of the Christian experience

“God never alters the robe of righteousness to fit the man. Rather He alters the man to fit the robe.”

Gospel text (Mt 9,9-13): As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, "Follow me."
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
He heard this and said,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."

This assignment for the Pharisees is our assignment today. How do we react to this message? This verse stands out to me anytime I’m around this part of the gospel, probably because I need this lesson so much. I feel more comfortable thinking about sacrifice. Sacrifice is concrete doing--doing something that you know to do. Mercy seems fuzzy.

Some interpretations say go and learn the meaning of this verse or this saying. Jesus would know that the Pharisees knew the origin of the words. The words come from Hosea 6:6. God tells the people in Hosea that they are getting it all wrong by focusing on animal sacrifice and ritual instead of taking care of people. Hosea goes on to remind the people of how many times they have gone off track.

So, we see how much the people of God need mercy. We can see in our own lives the ways we often go off track and how much we need mercy. Thankfully we have a God of mercy. We need mercy from one another too. Praise God for all those who show us mercy. Isn’t it a wonderful gift? When we show mercy to others in healthy ways we feel healing too. Consider how Jesus stresses this message in His teachings. The parable of the debtor and the king and the way He taught the disciples to pray are just two examples of teachings that stress a message of forgiveness and mercy.

As we honor Saint Matthew today it is fitting that we see how mercy plays out in his calling. The details are sparse, but Jesus appears to invite him with little notice and Matthew appears to accept the invitation and the mercy joyfully. So joyfully, in fact, that he wants to share this calling and this Jesus with his friends. He does not insist that his friends “clean up their act” first, just as Jesus did not appear to require that of Matthew before his calling. Yet, Matthew does walk away from the position that allowed him to take advantage of others and the gospel of Matthew emphasizes teachings of Jesus that set very high standards for caring for others and serving those who are disadvantaged.

I can be like the Pharisees. I am easily pulled into being skeptical of mercy. I can miss the awesome and ironic power of mercy to help people (including me) live up to a higher standard. This is particularly the case when the standard that matters most is authentic love. Receiving mercy helps us get back up again and helps us to do what is required to love others well, not out of a sense of righteousness and powerfulness, but with humility and compassion.

Isn’t love with humility and compassion what we so often see in Jesus?

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