Go and Learn What This Means

Rev. Scott Summerville

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 9:10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 9:11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 9:12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 9:13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
… 9:18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 9:19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. 9:20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 9:21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 9:22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” and instantly the woman was made well. 9:23 When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 9:24 he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 9:25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 9:26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

In 1945, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, some farmers near the Egyptian town of Nag Hamadi dug up a large earthenware jar. They had no idea that they were making one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time, a discovery especially exciting for biblical scholars. What they had dug up was an ancient vessel containing a small library. One of the scrolls in that jar was a complete copy of a gospel which came to be known as the Gospel of Thomas. The discovery and the interpretation of that gospel are one of the most fascinating chapters in the long history of biblical study. This gospel contained words of Jesus that were not previously known. Quite amazing!

But the most fascinating thing about the Gospel of Thomas is not what it contains; it is what it does not contain. The Gospel of Thomas is not like the Gospels that we are familiar with in our New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew Mark Luke and John. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings of Jesus.
There are no stories about his birth or his life or even his death. There are only sayings attributed to Jesus. It is a gospel without any stories.

Can you imagine what the Christian church would be today if the only gospel we had did not tell any of the stories of Jesus ministry, of his life and death? For one thing there would be no Christmas, no Easter, no Good Friday, no Pentecost. We are creatures who love stories. Look at the way we follow the political campaigns. We are fascinated by the life stories of many of the candidates and the unpredictable story of the political battle. When a preacher gives a sermon, she better have a story to tell, because people won’t listen for more than two minutes to ideas alone; ideas must be woven into stories. As interesting as the gospel of Thomas may be, it will never replace the Gospels of our New Testament, because we are wedded to the stories – stories of birth and death, the stories of healing, the sacred drama of Jesus going to Jerusalem, Cross and Resurrection. Yes, we want to know what Jesus said, but we also want to know the story.

Look with me at the gospel story for today. Matthew, chapter 7, starting with verse 9. Even though I am very familiar with this passage, I was amazed as I looked at it again and see how the gospel writer tells us a story within a story within a story within a story.

First Jesus calls a tax collector named Matthew away from his tax booth and recruits him to be one of his followers, even though tax collectors were the most despised of all people in the colonial Roman system. Along with Matthew the tax collector, Jesus goes into a house full of other disreputable people, where he proceeds to share a meal.

Nearby some of the most serious religious people of the day, members of the Pharisee party, are observing Jesus and the company he is keeping; not surprisingly, they turned to Jesus’ followers and they say: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” A perfectly good question. Jesus overhears this question and answers it: My purpose, he says, is not to seek the righteous but the sinners; my purpose is to heal the sick, not to go to those who have no need of healing.

Then he tells them – the ones who are questioning his judgment – “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ ” He is quoting the Hebrew Bible where God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” But he’s not just quoting the Bible to make his point, he is saying, “go and learn what this means.”

Is he telling them to go back and study their Bibles? Or is he saying to them, “Go and learn from life what this means – that God wants from you not that you do rituals that please God – that you sacrifice the right things at the altar – God wants you to live as one who practices mercy.”

Go and learn what mercy means.

Go and learn what forgiveness means.

Go and learn what it means to stop judging everyone else.

Go and learn what it means to pursue nonviolent, non-attacking solutions to problems.

I got a call from my daughter on Friday. She just got back from work at the junior high school in New Orleans where she is an assistant principal. She said, “ We had a big fight here today, and it ended up with the police coming and arresting two 15-year-old girls. Dad, how do I tell kids not to fight, when their parents are telling them never backed down, always hit back harder than you got hit, and never walk away from a fight? The parents tell me, I teach my child to fight back, and I say to the parents, You are teaching your child how to get to jail.’ ”

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Go and actually practice and learn ways of dealing with other human beings that are not based upon win and lose, battling it out, hurt for hurt.

I told my daughter that when I was a boy there was a fair amount of fighting in my neighborhood; certainly the boys had to have a strategy for dealing with physical intimidation. It was very hard for me, because my parents taught me to turn the other cheek. “Go out and play, little Christian boy, and if they smack you upside-the-head, don’t hit back.” I have to tell you that turning the other cheek did not work very well. Being gentle and merciful with one’s enemies is not a complete strategy. Eventually I decided that I had to break the rules my parents set, and for a period of time I was a fighter; I had maybe three good fights, but that strategy did not work either. Fighting led to physical injury, emotional injury, rage and shame. Fighting was a terrible experience, a very scary experience.

Part of my lifelong interest in mediation and conflict resolution goes back to those boyhood days. Turning the other cheek did not work; and striking back in anger did not work. We have to go and learn what it means to be merciful; we have to go and learn what it means to resolve conflict peacefully; we need to develop skills and strategies that enable us to be loving and live faithfully as Christian people without allowing ourselves simply to be walked over or without allowing ourselves to be drawn into emotional or physical violence. It’s something we have to practice and fail and keep practicing. That’s what learning is all about: being willing to try, to experiment, and develop new skills and capacities.

So here’s our instruction from Jesus: “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

Back to our gospel story – our story within the story within the story within the story: While Jesus is in the give-and-take of the questioning and answering at the dinner table with all the best sinners in town, the story takes a twist. The dinner is interrupted by one of the synagogue leaders whose child is dead or dying; this poor desperate father falls at Jesus feet and begs for him to do something for his child. So now the time for talking and arguing is interrupted by human need. Jesus breaks off the conversation and follows the man to his house.

But on the way to the house to deal with this emergency, Jesus is approached by a woman with chronic illness who has suffered for twelve years. She touches the fringe of his garment. The stage is now filling up with characters: disciples and Pharisees, tax collectors and sinners, a grieving father, and now a woman desperate and bleeding; the stories of all of these lives are interacting and interwoven. On the way to minister to this family and to the child who is ill, Jesus turns to this ailing woman and says to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And she was healed.

He then proceeds to the home of the synagogue leader. Before they arrive at the house, they hear music. (You knew there had to be some connection to music in today’s message on Choir Recognition Sunday.) The flutes are playing, and the wailing has begun. It is the wailing of the professional wailers with their high pitched piercing wails, and there is the sobbing and raw shrieks of grief coming from mother and aunts and uncles. The death of a child evokes such primal sorrow; words cannot go there – only tears and cries can express the condition of the heart, and only music can pierce the heart.

At the beginning of the story Jesus said that he had come to heal the sick, not those who are well; at that time he was not talking about physical illness; he was talking about spiritual illness, but now he is confronted with a dying child, and he becomes a healer of the body. But first he tells the musicians to go away. It is very unfortunate that on choir recognition Sunday Jesus tells the musicians to go away. It’s not that Jesus has anything against musicians. It’s just that these musicians are not needed; these musicians who have converged upon this house where death has visited; these are the musicians who play for the dead and the grieving; they are doing their thing, they are wailing away mournfully on their flutes. They are not necessary this day.

Jesus tells them, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. He sends the musicians away, but my guess is that another group of musicians were on the scene in no time, the kind of musicians who performed at weddings and banquets with their stringed instruments and tambourines. The way I picture it: once the word gets out that the child is alive, the music will start up again, the music of ecstasy and celebration.

So we have today in just a few verses of Scripture some important teachings of Jesus:
“I have come to heal those who are sick up those are well.”
“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

With these teachings comes a story within a story within a story within a story within a story. The story of a little girl dying, wrapped in the story of her family’s grief, folded into the story of an older woman with chronic health problems, folded into the story of Jesus teaching at the dinner table surrounded by sinners, folded into the story of Jesus and his travels and his teaching and the calling of women and men to follow him.

At wedding ceremonies I invite the bride and groom to contemplate their stories – how the stories of their individual lives came together to form a new and evolving story of their life together, and how preceding their individual life stories are the stories of their ancestors: their parents or grandparents and the generations before them, and how that family story is set in the larger history of the peoples and the nations from whom their ancestors came, and how all this human story this human history is set within the larger story of this ancient Earth and this yet more ancient cosmos. A human being is a living story. It is an awesome thing to contemplate human history and the history of our own time, and the billions of human dramas that are woven together upon this planet earth.

I am most pleased that those Egyptian farmers dug up the gospel of Thomas. It is a fascinating book. I am grateful, though, that our ancestors preserved not only the words of Jesus, but that they remembered and passed along the story. Being a Christian means finding yourself in the story, finding yourself on the sea of Galilee and its sudden storms; finding yourself on the road looking for meaning and companionship, finding yourself in Jesus’ company, as one sinner among others, seeing yourself as one who comes to be healed, and hearing the challenge to go and learn.

Whether you are five years old or ninety-five, Jesus keeps sending us out with that message:
go and learn how to do this thing called life in a better way, with greater love, greater compassion, greater strength, and greater creativity and wisdom.

So be it.
Shalom.

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