I don't normally do this, but I felt compelled to share my sermon that I preached this past weekend. It makes me feel a bit nervous and vulnerable, but here goes nothing:
Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26
Matthew was a tax collector. Now, in the hierarchy of Jewish society, tax collectors were pretty near the bottom. They were not respected by most Jewish people, and in fact, were usually seen as traitors and collaborators with the Romans. This is because they were paid by the Romans to collect taxes for the Roman emperor, and the Romans claimed that the emperor was God. In the eyes of the Jewish people, this was breaking the first commandment. Since the tax collectors gathered the money that went to support the emperor, they were seen as breaking this commandment, too.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, tax collectors had the reputation of being unfair. They would often collect more tax than the Roman’s required, and keep the surplus for themselves. So, you have these poor people who are being oppressed by a foreign army, and then you have someone who is supposed to be on their side helping out the enemy and stealing money from Jewish people. As a rule, tax collectors were not welcome members of Jewish society, and even associating with one could affect your standing in the society, as well.
Then we have the leader of the synagogue. If tax collectors were on one end of the spectrum, then synagogue leaders would have been on the other. They were often the most respected members of Jewish society, seen as good and upright citizens. They were often very wealthy and well connected and would have a lot of power and control in the society.
However, in Jewish society, just like in our society, there were the haves and have-nots. The people in power often got that way, and stayed that way, by taking advantage of the people below them. While the synagogue leader would have ranted and raved about how the tax collector was sinful and unclean, he was probably just as guilty for taking advantage of the poor Jewish people as the tax collector was. But because he had power and prestige he was able to cover up his wrong doings and present to the people this image of power and control, an image that won him respect from the people.
The third person we meet in today’s Gospel is the hemorrhaging woman. She would have been at the lower end of society, along with the tax collector, for a couple of reasons, neither of which were her own doing. First, she was a woman and in Jewish society women didn’t have a lot of status. In fact, they were pretty much considered to be units of property. Secondly, she was hemorrhaging. There were a lot of rules and regulations regarding blood and cleanliness among Jewish people. Because this woman had been hemorrhaging, she would have been considered unclean and so people would have stayed away from her. She would have been shunned from society and even her family until a certain number of days after the hemorrhaging had ceased. After it had ceased she would have been required to participate in a ritual cleansing and then she would have been considered clean and fit to rejoin society. But it had been twelve years since she had started hemorrhaging. It had been twelve years since she had been able to participate in society as a normal and respectable person. She had been shunned from her family for that long and probably by this point her family considered her dead and had moved on. She probably tried every treatment and cure known to stop the hemorrhaging, but after twelve years and failed attempt after failed attempt, she had probably given up all hope and was resigned to live a life of exile and suffering.
We don’t know what position in society this woman held previous to her condition. Perhaps she had been married to a man much like the leader of the synagogue. If so, she would have had some esteem in the community, if only because she belonged to an important person. Or maybe she was a poor peasant woman, who would have spent the rest of her life on the fringe of society, anyway. All we know about her is that she was suffering physically, as well as suffering the indignities that came because of her condition.
Lastly, we briefly meet the daughter of the synagogue leader. Since women were married at a young age, and this girl still lived at home, we can guess that she was fairly young. And for some reason she was now dead. The reasons behind her death are a mystery, but since she was so young, her death seems undeserved. She had her whole life ahead of her, and it was unfairly robbed from her. That’s all that we can decide about this young girl. Unlike the previous three, we are unable to use her occupation or her situation in life to make judgments about her, because she didn’t have time to get an occupation or to develop a situation. She was just a young girl.
So there we have the stories of four people. Four people who, except for the synagogue leader and his daughter, lived lives so different from one another that there would have been no real reason for them to overlap. They would have kept their distance from each other, each one knowing their place in society and sticking to it.
But in the Gospel for today, their lives are connected. At least momentarily the barriers that separate them from each other are removed; they are all on the same playing field, and given the same chances. All of this happens when they come into contact with Jesus.
Jesus comes across Matthew, first. Since it says that Matthew was sitting at the tax booth, it would have been obvious to Jesus that Matthew was a tax collector. And Jesus would have known about the reputation of tax collectors. He would have known that you couldn’t get much lower than a tax collector, and that good citizens only associate with them when they have to pay taxes. Jesus knew all of this. He could have told Matthew that he was a horrible sinner and that there was no place in the Kingdom of God for someone like him. But he doesn’t do that. He talks to Matthew. Not only does he talk to Matthew, but he invites him to join the disciples. Jesus invites this man, who was disregarded and despised, to be his friend and companion. Through this act, he gives Matthew a new life, of sorts.
Then Jesus goes to eat at Matthew’s house, where they are joined by many other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees, who were constantly following Jesus and watching his every move, see him socializing with these outcasts and they are quick to make a commotion about it. They ask the disciples why their teacher is eating with such people. Jesus hears the Pharisees question and tells them that it is those who are sick that need a physician. Then he gives them a homework assignment and tells them to figure out what he means by saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
If the Pharisees wanted to know what Jesus meant by that statement, they would have just needed to follow him and watch. Moments after the Pharisees had tried to criticize Jesus by calling attention to the fact that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, he is approached by the leader of the synagogue. Now this leader could have been a Pharisee himself, but if he wasn’t he would have been very friendly with the Pharisees. This man comes up to Jesus asking for his help. The man’s daughter has just died, but he has heard the stories of Jesus and his miracles, and knows that if Jesus would only lay his hand on her that his daughter would live.
Jesus could have told the man to go away. He could have called to attention all of the ways that this man was responsible for the oppression of the poor, or how he and the other leaders kept the very people out of the synagogue that needed their help the most. Jesus could have told this man that since he did not offer help to people who needed it, that Jesus would not help him either. He had every right to do this. It would have been perfectly justifiable. But Jesus does not say anything like that to the man. In fact, he doesn’t say anything. He gets up and follows this man, taking the disciples with them.
As they are journeying to the leader’s house, the hemorrhaging woman sees them. She has heard the stories of Jesus and his miracles, just the like leader of the synagogue has. She believes that if she can only touch the hem of Jesus’ robe then she will be healed. So she creeps through the crowd and as Jesus passes by she reaches out and touches his robe.
This woman had just done several things wrong, according to Jewish society. First, as a woman, it was inappropriate and scandalous for her to publicly touch a man, especially one that was not her husband. Secondly, as someone who was unclean, she was supposed to keep her distance from everyone else, so as not to jeopardize their cleanliness. In either case, the act of her reaching out and touching Jesus would have been grounds enough for him to have her stoned.
But, of course, that is not what Jesus does. He turns to her, and with mercy, says that her faith has made her well. Her years of suffering and of separation from her friends and family are finally over. Because of one act of mercy her life has been forever altered and she has been made clean. Instead of a response that ended in her death, Jesus gave a response that gave the woman new life.
Finally, Jesus makes it to the home of the synagogue leader. Already there are people gathered outside to mourn his daughter’s death. Seeing as how he was an important person, there was probably quite a large crowd gathered. As Jesus approaches he tells the mourners to go away, because the girl is not dead, only sleeping. When they hear this, the crowd begins to laugh. Most of them have probably seen her, and they know she is dead. They probably think that Jesus is crazy, or at least a little weird, and so they laugh at him and probably call him a few names.
Now, Jesus could have said, “Fine. If you’re going to laugh at me, then I won’t help.” And then he could have left, leaving the little girl dead. But he doesn’t. Acting out of mercy, he disregards the laughs and taunts of the crowd, and raises the young girl from the dead. He reaches down, takes her hand, and the little girl gets up from the bed. Jesus raises the girl from the dead and into new life.
Jesus interacts with four very different people and, regardless of their position in society or their previous actions, Jesus responds to all four in the same way. The tax collector, the synagogue leader, the unclean woman, the young girl… All four receive mercy from Jesus. He doesn’t turn them away because they are unclean or outcast. He doesn’t turn them away because of their wealth or because of other people’s disbelief. He reaches out in mercy to each of them, offering them forgiveness and new life.
Let’s extend this story. Let’s say that after raising the girl from the dead Jesus continued on his journey and he came across you. What reasons would Jesus have to ignore you? Maybe you’re like the tax collector, and you have done things that you know are not right. Maybe you have lied or stolen or cheated someone. You think that Jesus has no use for a person like you, that Jesus would keep on walking without even glancing your way.
Or maybe you’re like the synagogue leader. Maybe you are responsible for ignoring the needs of those around you. You see your church as a place for those who are acceptable and clean and worthy. You keep out the very people that most need the church and what it has to offer, and that because you have failed to offer help to others, that Jesus will not help you.
Or maybe you are like the hemorrhaging woman. Maybe because of circumstances beyond your control you are suffering. Your support systems have fallen through, and no one seems to be willing to help you. You feel as if you have become an outcast, forgotten by the people who should love you and protect you the most. And you wonder why Jesus would be any different. If your friends and family don’t seem to care, why should Jesus? And you’ve resigned yourself to a life of suffering and separation.
Or maybe you are like the young girl. Not dead, but in a situation that seems hopeless and as if there is nothing anyone can do to help you. People are gathered to mourn your loss, but when someone mentions that there is still hope, they all laugh it off. There seems to be no way out. So you think that even Jesus could not help you. Your situation is too bleak, there is no hope. Why would Jesus even think of helping?
I’m sure that each of the people in today’s Gospel had those thoughts running through their head. They knew that Jesus had every reason to ignore them, to keep on walking, to leave them alone in their situations. But Jesus didn’t. He stopped his journey and reached out to them. Despite every reason he had to keep going, to ignore their needs and pleas for help. He stopped and reached out in mercy.
This mercy that Jesus offers to these four people extends to us as well. Regardless of where we fit into this story, whether we are more like the tax collector or the synagogue leader, whether we identify with the unclean woman or the young girl, this mercy is offered to us. What this Gospel is saying to us is that it doesn’t matter where we fit in society. We could be a top dog or hanging out at the bottom of the barrel, but that doesn’t matter. Jesus’ mercy is extended and offered to us.
Jesus ultimately reached out in mercy on the cross. I mean, he had every reason to not give his life for such a sinful and unworthy group of people. But out of love and mercy, he chose to be crucified and die on the cross so that our sin and unworthiness could be washed away. He chose to reach out in love and mercy, even though it meant giving up his own life in the process. And because he did die, and then rose again to new life, we know that we, too, shall one day rise again. And in his extreme love and mercy he will gather us all together, and the barriers that separate us will be removed.
Other than Matthew, we’re not sure what happened to the characters in this story after they came across Jesus. We know that Matthew became a disciple and followed Jesus with the others, but even he is not mentioned much outside of this story. We can only imagine that after this interaction with the mercy of Jesus that their lives were changed and that it altered the way they lived. We can only hope that after being shown mercy that they were more willing to show mercy to others.
As Christians, that is our calling: to witness to the mercy and love that we have received from Christ through our daily interactions with others. We are called to respond to the mercy and love and kindness that Jesus has shown us, by showing mercy and love and kindness to others.
So remember that. Remember that Jesus has come to you, and regardless of whether or not you deserve it, he has reached out and shown you mercy and love. And in return you are called to spread that love and mercy around, even if you think the people around you don’t deserve it. Because you received and continue to receive that love and mercy even when it is undeserved.