“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Many of us may have been asked this question, and maybe we’ve asked this question. We ask it to inspire children and young adults to dream, to give them hope, and to open their eyes to a world of possibilities. We ask this question to make young people aware of the freedom and responsibility they have in forming their own identity. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But, we also this question to set limits. To make clear that though faced at times with a dizzying array of options and possibilities, one cannot do everything. One must choose what one wants to be, and that always means not choosing something else. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
In the calendar of the church, we celebrate today the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Matthew grew up to be a tax collector! Hardly the stuff of childhood dreams, but the pay is good. Being a tax collector meant working for the occupying Roman Empire collecting taxes from his fellow Jews. Jews collecting taxes from other Jews was considered treasonous; it was a self-serving betrayal of the nation of Israel, and anyone who succumbed to the temptation to earn their daily bread in this way was treated as an outcast, a non-Jew. They were denied membership in the Jewish community, and thought to be an enemy of God. This is Matthew’s status when Jesus extends his invitation to follow him. Matthew is working his tax booth, and we can assume profiting from it, when Jesus invites him, as well as other outcasts and sinners to be his companions. Companion from the Latin com meaning ‘with’ and panis (pa-nees) meaning ‘bread’, companion literally means ‘with bread’. To be someone’s companion is to eat with them, or rather, those we eat with become our companions. Jesus invites Matthew, and other outcasts and sinners to be his companions – to eat with him – and to form a new community.
When the Pharisees see this they are understandably confused. Jesus appears to be a respectable Jew; many call him rabbi, or teacher. He possesses knowledge of scripture and Torah, is attracting disciples, and instructing them in the spiritual way of life. So why associate with enemies of the Jewish nation? Why associate with those, like Matthew, who profit from the oppression of fellow Jews? Why, the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples reasonably enough, does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus instructs the Pharisees, “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.’” Jesus is referring here to an episode in the history of the Jewish nation that would have been familiar to the devout Pharisees. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” are the words spoken by God through the prophet Hosea at a time when the nation of Israel was being unfaithful to God because God wasn’t doing what they want. The nation of Israel began worshipping other gods in the hope of getting different answers and better deals, though they continued to try and appease the Jewish God – you might even say control God – by doing the right thing, by offering sacrifice, by being good, and following the rules. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” God says.
Mercy is showing love toward someone who doesn’t necessarily deserve it. It’s revealing to another their value even in the face of their seeming imperfections. In Hebrew, the word for mercy is also often translated as ‘steadfast love,’ that is, unwavering love, unchanging love, love that endures through good times as well as bad, so there is an element of faithfulness involved. Mercy is a commitment, though we don’t often think of it that way. Mercy is a commitment, because we are free to choose it. Free to choose it because our relationship with God is a union, not a fusion; our relationship with God is a union precisely because we are free to choose love, just as God has freely chosen to love us. God does not want us trying to manipulate and control God by doing the right thing or being good, nor does God want us seeking out different answers and better deals when we don’t get our way. God desires mercy. God desires that we let God be God, and freely choose to love God even when it seems undeserving. God desires that we freely choose to love God, which we can because our relationship with God is a union. It’s a union, which is why this kind of love is discovered in communion and in community.
Mercy is discovered in communion and in community because when Jesus invites us with other outcasts and sinners to be his companions – to eat with him – and to form a new community, Jesus does not consult us about the guest list. We can choose to follow Jesus, we can choose to respond to his invitation to be in communion, but we cannot choose who he calls us to be in community with. And so in community, we are invited to choose mercy, to love those who don’t necessarily deserve it, to reveal to another their value even in the face of their seeming imperfections, in community we are invited to choose mercy, time and time again. This is the terrible choice Matthew is confronted with when he encounters Jesus. It’s a terrible choice because choosing mercy is not easy, and it always means not choosing something else. Choosing mercy means leaving the tax booth, and the security it provides, to be vulnerable and risk rejection as Jesus’ companion. Choosing mercy means laying aside self-sufficiency to eat with other outcasts and sinners – people probably no more attractive to Matthew than they were to the Pharisees. Choosing mercy means leaving behind independence for community, and being in community often means not choosing to be right in favor of mercy. Being in community often means choosing not to get your own way in favor of mercy. Sure, it might mean the end of isolation, and we can expect to receive mercy, too. But when faced with these options, it’s not always easy to choose, so we need plenty of reminders. We need reminders so we will remember to choose mercy, which is part of what we are doing here today.
In a little while, we will remember, with bread, that our relationship with God is a union – a communion – so we can freely choose to love God, just as God freely chooses to love us. In a little while, we will remember, with bread, that though we may come to the altar empty handed, we do not need to manipulate and control God to get what we want. We can let God be God, trusting that God will provide our daily bread, the strength and courage to face the demands of the day. In a little while, we will remember, with bread, that we have been invited to eat with Jesus and with other outcasts and sinners so we will become companions. We are called to eat together to become companions and to love one another. Love one another. Love one another. We need plenty of reminders. What do you want to be when you grow up? Jesus calls us together to choose mercy.
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