When I was 16, my mom and I went to visit my sister, Julie, who was in college in Flagstaff, AZ. The elevation of Flagstaff is almost 7000 ft. Julie took me out with friends to party, and we, stupidly, drove higher up a mountain to a fun bar where I had a couple of drinks. Well, my youth, the fact that I was unaccustomed to drinking and that stupid altitude all combined to make me REALLY SICK. Julie took me back to her apartment where I was put to bed with the spins, and a bucket. Now here’s the point of this story: I vividly remember my mom coming over to me with some aspirin and a big glass of water. She said, “When you can keep this down, drink these and you’ll feel better in the morning.” She didn’t yell at me for drinking, but my sister got an earful. I had been an idiot and should have been in trouble, but instead mom showed me mercy. I’ve never forgotten that.
There is a lot of mercy in our gospel today. Jesus shows mercy to the tax collector, sinners, the leader of the synagogue and a bleeding woman. The only people to whom he doesn’t show mercy are the Pharisees. When they chastise him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he answers: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
‘Mercy, not sacrifice’. That’s kind of a weird thing to say. I believe Jesus is saying that it is how you treat one another that matters, not the rituals you keep or the church you attend. Do you show mercy to others, or do you go to the temple and make a sacrifice instead? Remember that in those days, it was thought that sickness was a punishment for sin. So, Jesus healing these people when they have not atoned for their sin by a ritual sacrifice at the temple was an act of mercy. God wants to see us showing mercy, not following hidebound rules that leave way too many people out in the cold.
Why is it such a big deal that he shows mercy to a tax collector? In his society, tax collectors were reviled because the money they collected was used to support the Roman occupation. They often took a little extra on the side to keep for themselves. But look at Jesus, inviting Matthew to leave his tax booth and follow him. They go on to have dinner together with many other tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus is actively choosing to build his church with people who are regarded by their society as sinners. By inviting outcasts to his table, Jesus is extending to them God’s healing grace and love. Mercy. Jesus points out that he has come to call sinners (like tax collectors or ritually unclean women) not the holier than thou, righteous folks (like Pharisees).
In the middle of this conversation with the Pharisees, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, kneels before Jesus and begs him to raise his little daughter from the dead. Jesus immediately gets up and follows this grieving father.
The two hurry along in the middle of a crowd when Jesus suddenly heals a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. All she needed to do to be healed was touch the hem of his cloak. Jesus has healed her bleeding but now, now, he surely heals her soul when he says; “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” How must it feel for this suffering woman, this societal outcast, to be called “daughter” by Jesus?!
Standing by, the leader of the synagogue must have been fuming while Jesus stood patiently talking to the woman. Surely his beloved daughter is more important than this dirty woman! But Jesus just walks on.
They finally get to the house with the dead little girl. There are flute players and a grieving crowd making a commotion. Jesus shushes them, saying “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” They respond by laughing at him. Jesus approaches the girl who is so silent, so still, everyone believes she is dead. Jesus simply takes her by the hand, and she gets up.
There is so much going on in this gospel, with three different stories crammed together. There are several things about this way of telling the story that occur to me: first, isn’t this the way life happens? It seems that when I’m on a mission to get something done, I encounter all kinds of interruptions.
What I love in this story is the relative importance of these three people: Matthew, a hated tax collector living on the margins of his society, Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, probably one of the most important people in the crowd that day and the impoverished, bleeding woman. Jesus embraces Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus stops helping the rich, powerful man to tend to the poor, powerless woman. To Jesus, all these people are of equal importance and value. Please notice that Jesus doesn’t ask any questions about the worthiness of any of these people. He doesn’t judge them. He just offers mercy and healing. I believe these stories are bunched together to make that point.
I also wonder if this is a little ‘slice of life’ glimpse into how Jesus spent his days: eat with sinners here, rebuke Pharisees, heal some more, raise the dead. What a busy day. No wonder he often went off by himself to pray.
Remember that by Jewish purity laws of the day, the tax collector is unclean by virtue of his profession. The woman is unclean by her bleeding and if the child is dead as everyone thought, she was also unclean. Jesus touched all of them and thus broke the law. Mercy, not sacrifice.
On Monday, Kevin walked Luna and I rode my bike down to the bank to make the church deposit. Luna and I sat outside on the sidewalk waiting for Kevin. I noticed Luna staring intently at an approaching man. I thought there was something about this man that seemed a little sketchy – the way he walked, or the way he was dressed. He seemed just a bit menacing. But as he came upon us, he turned to Luna and bent way over, almost bowing to her, to pet her gently on the head. Then he leaned over further and softly kissed her forehead. He murmured ‘thank you’, then turned to leave. I replied, ‘Thank YOU’.
This little exchange was such a moment of grace. Who knows what this man’s story was, but it was so sweet to have this gentle interaction. I judged him and he proved me wrong. Mercy.
We all need mercy, don’t we? Mercy is a quality that is intrinsic to the nature of God. God forgives us a zillion times a day for our less-than-ideal behavior. We can extend mercy in our lives by withholding judgement or by forgiving others.
I would love to see mercy in the hearts of our local leaders when they try to deal with people on the streets. Think how different laws and policies would be if they came from a place of love and forgiveness instead of punishment.
Please don’t forget to show mercy to yourself. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. Understand and accept that God’s love and mercy are without limit. Feel that in your bones. God forgives and forgives you, whether or not you deserve it. Pope Francis said, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” Amen!