“A God of Justice or a God of Mercy: Building on the Foundation”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
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.
10 And as he sat at dinner[a] in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting[b] with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” –Matthew 9:9-13
“The question at hand is which view of forgiveness Jesus took. Did he see God as a God of strict justice requiring sacrifice—especially blood sacrifice—in addition to repentance? Or did he see God as a God of mercy requiring repentance only?” – Richard Hagenston
It’s tax week in the United States so how appropriate is it, then, that I’m using the story from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus meets Matthew, the tax collector to illustrate my question from last week: do we worship a God of Justice or a God of Mercy. If you’ll recall from last week, I spent some time explaining that modern scholars believe the God of Justice and Judgement and Vengeance was actually a creation of a group of High Priests determined to enshrine in religious law, temple practices that would provide those High Priests with resources to survive for perpetuity. They basically made it a sin to NOT support your temple. Through the collection of sacrifices and offerings the priests were able to maintain a very lavish lifestyle—all the while claiming that they are just doing God’s work–because they created a theology where they were the arbiters of God’s justice.
In Matthew’s Gospel we get the story of how Jesus and Matthew meet: In the world that Jesus worked in, there were plenty of taxes—secular ones and religious ones. As I told you last week, temple worship and temple sacrifices were made into laws in the Torah. It was enshrined in religious law that you must support the temple. In fact, in Exodus 30 we have God telling Moses that all observant Jews must pay an atonement tax to the Temple. There’s one audit I don’t want to be a part of!
The secular taxes are interesting as well: At the time of Jesus the Roman Empire ruled over Palestine, it was part of their province of Syria and there were taxes for just about everything: customs taxes, import and export taxes, toll bridges, crop taxes, sales tax, property tax and special war taxes. There were building project taxes and even campaign finance taxes. Technically, the Romans collected these secular taxes and it was rich Romans who didn’t live anywhere near Syria, who ran the tax service. But in practice what actually happened was they hired local men to collect the various taxes for them. But the rich Romans didn’t pay their tax collectors—the tax collectors mad their living off of money that they charged people over and above the legal tax amount. We’d call this “skimming off the top”, but it was the way the system was devised and executed. What resulted, though, was actually much worse than just “skimming”…it was outright extortion. Tax collectors, already despised because of their legal mandates, would take as much as they could—targeting the poor especially, because the poor have no recourse, do they? Well, match this general hatred of tax collectors with the idea that most Jews held that paying taxes to a civil authority was a sin and you have a pretty unpopular vocation. One of my sources wrote this: “The unusual combination in a [tax collector] of petty tyrant, renegade and extortionist made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not conducive to popularity”. And yet, with all of this going against him, Jesus stops in front of Matthew’s tax booth and says “Follow me”. The Gospel of Matthew recounts the story thusly: “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. 10 And as he sat at dinner[a] in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting[b] with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus said that he desired mercy, not sacrifice. By the way, this particular scripture is only found in Matthew. Matthew was the Gospel written for a strong Jewish identity: The Jewish background in the Gospel is plain. Jewish customs are familiar to everyone in the book, the debate about the law (of Judaism) is a central question, and the Sabbath is still observed. So, while the community that was built up around the writings in the Matthew tradition would have included some gentiles, it was probably more Jewish than not. But I’m curious as to why Mark and Luke don’t address the God of Mercy/Justice dichotomy here. They address it, but they don’t address it in this story—the calling of Matthew.
On Easter evening we were treated to a live television production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The production was, in my opinion, well-done and updated to reflect the contemporary value found in the Gospel story. Of particular note was when Jesus interrupts the barks and cries of the sellers and the money-changers in the temple and casts them out. Many scholars believe this was the crime that cost Jesus his life. Our own Gary Cox preached on this moment often. To him, and to me, the fact that Jesus would upset the status quo, the financial transactions that were required for the temple to run smoothly, that he would interrupt the commerce of the High Priests was an act too far. He had crossed a line with the Jewish authorities and they were done with him. Not only did Jesus, in their eyes, sacrilege the traditional teachings of the Torah, but he dared to mess with their money. Imagine what the reaction was like as word of this spread throughout Jerusalem. Imagine what his own follower, Matthew, a tax collector, thought when he heard that Jesus had does this. I have to think that Matthew probably knew this was the bridge too far…this was the line that couldn’t be crossed…this was the act that indeed sealed Jesus’ fate.
My understanding of how the Roman Empire dealt with the various states and nations that it conquered and occupied is a two-fold concept: One—keep money flowing freely back to Rome. And two: Don’t make waves—don’t cause any problems that might upset the status quo. It seems that Imperial Rome tolerated an awful lot—you could worship pretty much whatever God you wanted to, you could engage in certain unlawful acts (unless they broke rule number two) and you could pretty much lead your life as you did before the occupation…as long as you didn’t break those two over-arching rules. Money to Rome and no civil disobedience. Jesus broke both of those in one act. When he dared to interrupt the normal Temple business, he interfered with the money of the Temple which in turn interfered with money that the Temple would normally funnel to Rome. AND he created a scene—he disrupted the normal workings of the day. I think, that since one of Jesus’ disciples was a tax collector, someone with inside knowledge of the financial workings of the Empire, Jesus probably knew exactly what he was doing. And Jesus probably knew the price he was going to pay for his act of defiance.
We have other examples of defiance against existing social and imperial structures. When Pope Francis was a parish priest in Argentina, he met a mother with young children who had been abandoned by her husband. She had no steady income. When odd jobs were scarce, she would prostitute herself in order to feed her children and provide for her family. During that time, she would visit the local parish, which tried to help her by offering food and material goods. One day during the Christmas season the mother visited and requested to see the parish priest, Father Jorge Bergoglio. He thought she was going to thank him for the package of food the parish had sent to her. “Did you receive it?” Fr. Bergoglio had asked her. “Yes, yes, thank you for that, too,” the mother explained. “But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.” This experience with the young mother profoundly touched the man who would become Pope Francis. He said it taught him the importance of treating every human person with dignity and mercy, no matter their situation in life. “Experiences like this teach you how important it is to welcome people delicately and not wound their dignity,” Pope Francis stated. For this woman, the fact that the parish priest continued to call her Señora, even though he probably knew how she led her life during the months when she could not work, was as important – or perhaps even more important than – the concrete help the church gave her.
Or how about the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. In February, 1993, Mrs. Johnson’s son, Laramiun Byrd, who was 20 at the time, was shot in the head by 16-year-old Oshea Israel after the two men had an argument at a party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fast forward some 20 years: Mary Johnson is now close friends with her son’s killer after visiting him in prison and helping him reintegrate into society
Israel, who was involved with drugs and gangs, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 and a half years. He served 17 before being released. He now lives back in the neighborhood where he grew up – next door to the mother of the young man he murdered. Mary Johnson said she originally wanted justice and to see Israel locked up for what he had done. She said: “My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother. ‘[The murder] was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.”
She decided to found a support group and then counselled other mothers whose children had been killed and encouraged them to reach out to the families of their murderers, who were victims of another kind. “Hurt is hurt, it doesn’t matter what side you are on,” she said. Then just a few years ago, the 59-year-old teacher asked if she could meet Israel at Minnesota’s Stillwater state prison. She said she felt compelled to see if there was a way in which she could forgive her son’s killer.
At first he refused but then nine months later, he changed his mind. Israel said he was shocked by the fact she wanted to meet him. Israel said: “I believe the first thing she said to me was, ”Look, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Let’s just start with right now.” Israel said ‘… I was befuddled myself.’ The pair met regularly after that. When Israel was released from prison in 2011, Mary Johnson introduced him to her landlord – who, with her blessing, invited Israel to move into the building.
Mary Johnson and Israel are now close friends, a situation that she puts down to her strong religious beliefs but says she also has a selfish motive. She said: “Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It’s not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done. Yes, he murdered my son – but the forgiveness is for me.”
Mary Johnson even wears a necklace with a two-sided locket – on one side are photos of herself and her son; the other has a picture of Israel. Israel admits he still struggles with the extraordinary situation he finds himself in.
Israel said: “I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet, I’m learning to forgive myself. And I’m still growing toward trying to forgive myself.” Israel now hopes to prove himself to the mother of the man he killed. He works at a recycling plant during the day and goes to college at night. He says he’s determined to pay back Mary Johnson’s clemency by contributing to society. He visits prisons and churches to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. Mary Johnson often joins him and they tell their story together. Israel added: ‘A conversation can take you a long way.’
Could you forgive the person who killed a loved one? What mercy that act would take.
Okay—so how can we help co-create a better world through acts of mercy rather than judgement? I’ve complied some simple, everyday things you can start doing right now, today, that might help make the world just a little bit better, just a little bit kinder, and just a little bit more merciful:
Be patient with people’s quirks. Who is that person in your life who has irritating quirks? How can you practice patience with that person this week? Is there some way you can simply look past the behavior and see the human being in front of you, instead of some little quirk that irritates you?
Help anyone around you who is hurting. There are lots of people in this room right now who are hurting. We’re just really good at hiding it. Ask questions that might reveal to you if someone is in pain—and then ask if there’s anything you can do to help with that pain. Honestly, sometimes the best we can do is just listen—being a sympathetic ear to someone going through something difficult is sometimes all they need.
Give people a second chance. Who do you need to give a second chance to? How can you show that person mercy and compassion this week? It’s my conviction that some people even need a third and fourth chance. God actually gives us unlimited chances. So should we.
Do good to those who hurt you. Maybe you’re suffering from an old wound that you have not been able to let go of. Who is that person in your life? Will you make a phone call or a visit this week? Sometimes we have to forgive them—even if we don’t think they deserve it—just for our own sake. So we can move. Or perhaps, as in the story of Mary and Israel, we move on together, albeit in a very unconventional way.
Be kind to those who offend you. Who offends you? Maybe it’s a politician or a friend that has said something or done something that really set you off. Maybe it’s a Facebook friend who has different views and says some pretty offensive things. How can you be intentional about showing kindness to that person this week? How can you show mercy to a person you’d rather exact justice from?
Build bridges of love to the unpopular. Who is the first person who comes to mind when you think of an outcast? Who spends their lunch breaks eating alone or doesn’t seem to have any friends at basketball games? What specific thing will you do this week to bridge the gap between you and that person? How can your simple smile bridge the distance between us?
Value relationships over rules. Who is an outsider you could engage within the next few days? Will you then step up and show that person the mercy of your kindness? Jesus valued his relationship with Matthew, the tax collector, far more than he valued any prejudice against the Roman Empire and his own feelings about taxation.
Richard Hagenston, who wrote a powerful little book called Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion that Jesus Would Have Rejected, has this to say about our search for a God of Mercy or Justice: “The question at hand is which view of forgiveness Jesus took. Did he see God as a God of strict justice requiring sacrifice—especially blood sacrifice—in addition to repentance? Or did he see God as a God of mercy requiring repentance only?” I think it’s pretty obvious: Jesus saw only a God of Mercy. He rejected the High Priest’s construction of a God of Justice. And I think we should too. Amen.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version’
https://www.thecompassnews.org/2016/04/taxes-came-due-jesus-time/ accessed April 18, 2018
http://pastorrick.com/devotional/english/seven-ways-to-be-merciful accessed April 17, 2018
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2000704/Woman-shows-incredible-mercy-sons-killer-moves-door.html accessed April 15, 2018