God's Nature is to Save

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 11, 2023

Jesus 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 and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:12-13)

What follows is a short fable that a variety of cultures claim as their own.  Nevertheless, the gist of the tale is usually consistent, and goes something like this: two Franciscan friars were kneeling at a creek washing their cloaks when one spied a scorpion clinging to a branch that had fallen into the water.  Seeing that the creature was about to drown, one of the friars reached out his hand to rescue it.  The instant he touched the scorpion, the little beast thanked the friar by curling its tail and administering a poisonous, painful sting.  The friar winced and withdrew his hand.  A second time he tried to save the drowning scorpion, only to receive a second sting.  Finally, as he reached his now-swollen hand for a third attempt, the other friar said to him, “Brother, why do you have mercy on the scorpion?  It’s nature is only to sting.”  The first friar replied through gritted teeth, “You need not remind me of the scorpion’s nature to sting.  It is my nature to save, and that is why I have mercy.” 

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve heard Jesus quote the prophet Hosea to the Pharisees in reference to a man named Matthew, who was a tax collector.  Even though Matthew became one of the twelve disciples, and has traditionally received credit for writing the Gospel that bears his name, we know little about him as a person.  The Gospels of Mark and Luke tell much the same story we heard this morning, but use the name Levi in place of Matthew.  Furthermore, Mark lists Alphaeus as Levi’s father.  And we read elsewhere (Matt. 10:3) that another disciple named James was also the son of Alphaeus.  So Matthew, also called Levi, was the son of Alphaeus, and may have had a biological brother among the twelve.  Unfortunately, this information will get you nothing more than a head full of Bible trivia – which is not going to make you the life of the parish picnic today, I am sorry to say. 

More useful in learning about Matthew is his occupation: a tax collector.  In the time and place of Jesus, tax collectors represented an especially despised group of people.  A tax collector’s nature was to sting.  They worked ultimately for the Romans who occupied the land and needed revenue to keep the peace, build the roads, and feed the empire.  The Jews hated paying taxes, not only because they believed it idolatrous to give tribute to Caesar, but also because the system was entirely corrupt.  In pursuit of taxable items, a man in Matthew’s profession could at any time rummage through belongings and strip search anyone he chose.  Tax collectors could then impose any tax they wanted, few of which had anything to do with the Roman government.[1]  Much of it went to line their own pockets.  So most tax collectors thoroughly deserved the disdain of the people. 

We can understand, then, the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus called Matthew to follow, and then went to dine at his house with other tax collectors.  Pharisees, as opposed to tax collectors, were generally good, respectable men who were deeply committed to the practice of the Jewish faith.  They worked laboriously to interpret and keep the Laws of Moses.  As such they represented the epitome of Judaism.  So we can perhaps even sympathize with their grumbling to the disciples of Jesus: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Why does your teacher reach out to a scorpion?  Why does this person, who deliberately disgraces everything we hold dear, receive the attention of Jesus, rather than those who try to honor God?  Matthew deserved rejection, not respect.  He needed scolding, not counseling.  Some would have said he should be held under the water, not pulled out of it.  When Jesus overheard the Pharisee’s complaint, what came to his mind was the prophet Hosea, whom he quoted when he commanded the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Who was Hosea?  Hosea was a prophet from the 8th century BC who came to understand his own troubled marriage as a parable of God’s relationship with Israel.  The Old Testament reading we’ve heard today is a fragment of the much larger story between Hosea and his wife, Gomer.  The Book of Hosea is a challenge to interpret, but the general consensus seems to be that Gomer was a woman out on a limb, about to drown in a life of prostitution.  Hosea was a respectable man who loved her nonetheless, so he reached out his hand in marriage.  After bearing Hosea’s three children, Gomer stung.  True to her nature, she committed adultery.  Hosea winced and withdrew his hand.  Divorce was the result – a painful, angry, tearful, impassioned divorce.  Gomer lost everything.  Nevertheless, Hosea had mercy.  The Hebrew word we render as “mercy,” or “steadfast love” is Hesed.  Hesed is one of the most difficult Biblical words to translate, but it entails “the loyalty manifested by a stronger party toward someone who is in a weaker position.”[2]  Hosea could not shake his hesed, or mercy, or steadfast love for Gomer, and his love drove him to seek reconciliation.  Hosea reached out his hand again and restored their home. 

Out of the crucible of love and betrayal that was his marriage, Hosea believed he had learned something of the intense and agonizing steadfast love that God must have for his people.  Hosea would write about Israel – down and out, captive in Egypt, backs to the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen thundering down on them – as an unlikely nation to be the chosen people of God.  Yet God reached out to help them and take them for his own.  God took them in as Hosea himself had taken in Gomer.  God took them in as the Franciscan reached out for the scorpion.  And just as the scorpion stung the hand that would save it, just as Gomer had been unfaithful to Hosea, Israel had strayed again and again from their covenant relationship with God.  Nevertheless, God could not shake his steadfast love for these people, and God’s steadfast love would drive him to win them back.  God’s nature is to save, even while being stung. 

It was the same divine steadfast love and mercy that Jesus now focused squarely on Matthew, the tax collector.  When the Pharisees objected, Jesus quoted Hosea because he wanted these so-called people of God to remember that they themselves had been the beneficiaries of the same divine mercy.  It never was their slavish keeping of the law that made them worthy to stand before God.  It was entirely God’s mercy.  They were Gomer.  They were Matthew.  Thus, what utter nonsense it was for them to begrudge the rescue of one like Matthew.  Imagine a hypothetical scene, if you will: a group of drowning people in a raging sea are miraculously hauled aboard a rescue ship.  Then, when the ship comes upon still others struggling in the water, those who have already been saved smugly berate those who are perishing: “Look at those people: they don’t know how to swim.  They don’t know enough to come out of the water in a storm.  Why should the captain waste a perfectly good lifeline on the likes of them?”  How quickly they have forgotten their own rescue, and who accomplished it.  Sadly, it happens all the time – this amnesia of those already on board.  Go and learn what this means, said Jesus to the Pharisees.  I desire mercy, not sacrifice. 

What do you think Jesus hoped the Pharisees would discover when he commanded them to go and reacquaint themselves with Hosea?  What do you think he hopes we, today, will discover?  I believe Jesus wanted the Pharisees and wants us to know the truth of our life and salvation and very existence.  As St. Paul implies in today’s reading from Romans (4:13-18), God has called us into existence out of non-existence.  God’s mercy is the ground of our existence.  But how easily we forget.  How easily we conclude that we have somehow called ourselves into existence, and made ourselves worthy to stand before God.  It just isn’t true.  It’s a delusion.  Jesus wanted the Pharisees and us always to know the truth, because the truth sets us free.  God’s truth sets us free from the smug superiority of the Pharisees, and it sets us free to follow Jesus and begin living now in the kingdom of God.  God’s nature is to save Matthew from his rapacious ways, and Gomer from her wandering ways, and the Pharisees from their arrogant ways, and you and me from whatever death-dealing ways we embrace.  Go and learn what this means. 

Nearly two years ago, after my mother died, I brought home from her apartment many of my father’s papers.  As some of you know, I am a preacher’s kid.  Dad was an Episcopal priest, so among his writings are sermons from every stage of his 39 years in parish ministry.  Lately, I’ve been going through them slowly, reading just one per day, reflecting on his words, and him, and the churches he served.  What shines through is someone whose very nature was to be nice.  He was not a perfect person.  He was not a superhero.  He did not leap over tall buildings in a single bound, or drive around in a Batmobile.  He was just unflappably nice – something I’d love to claim for myself, but let me state what you and I know all-too well: I cannot make any such claim about my nature.  Dad was like the first friar, always reaching out.  I am like the second: “Really?  You want to try that again?” 

In one sermon he wrote about a difficult pastoral relationship he’d had with a parishioner at a church he served years before.  The man’s name was Robert.  (Yes, I’ve changed his name to disguise his identity.  His actual name was Bob.  So let’s just call him Bob.  You see?  There I go again: not nice!)  For reasons my father could never understand, Bob just didn’t like him.  I remember Bob.  Most Sundays he would leave his pew in the middle of the sermon, march up the center aisle, and veer off to the parish hall where he would smoke cigarettes and drink the coffee until the service was finished.  He was a malicious gossip and a serial obstructionist.  Dad confessed that things got so bad that his stomach would churn every time he saw Bob or even thought about him.  What could be done?

Dad decided to reach out to Bob.  He arranged a meeting and apologized for his part in all the times their relationship had gone astray.  He expressed the hope that they could begin anew.  What was Bob’s reaction?  Well, Bob’s nature was only to sting.  Bob replied, “You ought to be sorry.”  Then he listed everything he thought was my father’s fault, things done and left undone.  When the meeting was finished, Bob had offered no hand of friendship, no acceptance of an apology, and certainly no apology of his own.  Yet, my father wrote, “Strangely, after he left I had the most amazing good feeling.  What I felt was a sense of relief, a cleansing.  He no longer had a hold on me because at least I had done my part to reach out.” 

A postscript to the story is that years later, Dad had moved on to another church in a different state.  Through the grapevine he heard that Bob’s father had died, so he wrote him a note of condolence and wished him well.  He reached out again.  True to Bob’s nature, he did not respond.  Dad wrote in the sermon that Bob’s lack of response didn’t matter.  “I didn’t need a response.  I needed to reach out.” 

God’s nature is to reach out again, and again, and again: to the likes of Matthew, Gomer, you, me, even Bob.  Especially Bob.  Go and learn what this means, says Jesus.  I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.

[1] William Barclay, The Master’s Men, Abingdon, 1976, p. 61-62.

[2] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Prentice-Hall, 1986, p. 308.