The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

As one gazes out over our present socio-political environment, it becomes evident that we have conveniently traded the Jesus of self-sacrificial mercy for one who shines our swords, writes our doctrine, and paints our placards. The grave danger inherent in a power broker Jesus is forcing out of sight the possibility of actual transformation at the margins where the sinners live and can ask real questions. Our longing for power, and calling it influence, has caused us to step in out of the misunderstood cold where the prophets always stand and don uniforms never meant for lovers of righteousness and peace.

Seeking doctrinal or moral purity is profoundly easier than pursuing the things that make for peace. It is much safer to “worship” Jesus (something never mentioned in the Gospels) than to “follow” him. The former suggests the distance of obeisance while the latter insists upon the sacrificial road of apprenticeship. Moreover, it simply gives us greater cause to ignore Jesus altogether whose presence, actions and words are a glaring indictment of our self-righteous perfectionism. 

In the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel we get a glimpse into something amazing; something counterintuitive to everything we think we should think about God’s interactions with us. It is a fascinating exchange between Jesus, already destroying stigmas by dining with a self-indulgent tax collector, and the ecclesiastical powers-that-be.

If merely correcting some wrong thinking was highest on Jesus’ agenda he could easily have done so without all the social mess of a public dinner with a greedy corporate yes-man like Matthew. To dine with such a one was a deeply political statement to some, a doctrinal one to others, and cultural one to still others.

It was “wrong” on every level.

The merciful act of dinner with one so despised was all the teaching required to convince Matthew of the uniqueness of his dinner guest. In what must have been a sumptuous meal, any other conversation was, um, gravy, so to speak. 

It was already a controversial and subversive act in itself. Jesus could have sat quietly at the table, eating his dinner without saying a single word. The action preached of a dangerous kind of love. A forthright, damn-the-torpedos mercy willing to forsake convention for compassionate engagement with one very undeserving man.

We think ourselves immune from the kinds of questions posed to Jesus by the Pharisees. But let’s ask ourselves what our response might be if Jesus bypassed our evangelical red carpet in favor of dinner with a gay, anti-American Muslim. Ah yes, we begin to understand a similar outrage.

That is the gospel of mercy to which we are called. It is the dare of Jesus who says to us as he did to them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Sacrifice = the security of obedience to prescribed norms, standards, requirements. Mercy = the risk of disobeying in favor of love.

We prefer the former. Jesus preferred the latter.

What ways might Jesus be calling you to forego ‘sacrifice’ in favor of mercy?

Is there a place in your life right now that could use the touch of mercy?

Spend some time this week in meditation on Jesus’ words: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The following two tabs change content below.

Robert Alan Rife

Robert Rife, M.A., minister of worship and music for Yakima Covenant Church (formerly Westminster Presbyterian) in Yakima, Washington, is a self-proclaimed book-nerd-word-herder, multi-instrumentalist (including Highland Bagpipes!), singer-songwriter, studio musician, choral director, poet, and liturgist. He maintains two personal blogs: Innerwoven and Robslitbits. He also blogs at Conversations Journal. Robert describes his vocation as exploring those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect with and promote spiritual formation.

Latest posts by Robert Alan Rife (see all)