Glynn Cardy 11th June 2023
The gospel reading for today brings together three stories of healing. One is about a tax collector who got up and left it all behind. One is about a bleeding woman who was on the fringe. And one is about a young ‘dead’ girl who received a hand in her own.
And between story one and two, set in the context of an inclusive meal, there is a wisdom saying from the Book of Hosea (6:6) ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ ‘Sacrifice’ could be translated in a modern amplified way as anything related to worship of God. Like prayers, singing, readings, and communion. All the things that our forebears usually imbued with a holy hue.
And ‘mercy,’ in the words of the moral theologian James Keenan, is ‘the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.’ It’s a way of being, seeing, and responding to others. And in Hosea, and in the Jesus communities that formed the Gospel of Matthew, entering the chaos of others is to have priority over entering into the activities of worship.
Dining with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ was to enter into the chaos of others, and thereby into the very Kin-dom of God.
These three stories may or may not have an historical basis in the ministry of Jesus. Instead of assuming facticity, we need to start with Jesus groups in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the late 1st century, some 60+ years after Jesus’ death. For it is likely that the stories of the tax collector, the haemorrhaging woman, and sick girl, resonated with the lived experience of people in those Jesus groups. They were people on the fringe, the margins of society.
As the biblical scholar Warren Carter says the Jesus groups welcomed to their meals “despised people marginalized by other groups, whether by occupation, gender, religious non-observance, socio-economic status, actions, and so on.” Jesus groups formed “an open, alternate, inclusive community/society not constituted by conventional status markers (ethnicity, wealth, etc) and gender hierarchies.”
Maybe in that alternate meal context members of Jesus groups told their personal stories. Stories often of hardship, exclusion, and violence. Not unlike what Desmond Tutu and his fellow panellists heard during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the late 1990s. Stories of enduring shame and suffering. And in the telling finding some healing more or less, some re-powering of their lives. And maybe in the telling they connected their stories with other earlier stories in the Jesus movement, and those stories have come down to us in texts like the one before us today.
For this is the power of story. To hear in it our own. To allow it to offer some healing. To hear in it hope.
So, story one. It’s about a man who worked for the violence invaders, the Romans, by collecting money, by fair means or foul, to prop up their Empire, but also to profit his own purse. Tax collectors took a percentage, sometimes a large percentage, of the takings for their own. Tax collectors were characterised as thieves, thugs, and Roman lackeys.
It was thus an occupation of shame. Kind of like working for big tobacco when we knew that it killed. And money, though it did and still does regardless of its source bring a semblance of respect, most ordinary people, out of earshot of the authorities, were scathing and scornful of tax collectors.
This story is one verse long. Jesus came, disrupted, and left. And Matthew followed. Matthew chose to leave behind the position of power, security of money and status, and join with an alternative community, an alternative to the normal operating procedures of the Empire.
The text identifies the critics of both Jesus and Matthew as ‘pharisees’. We need to be careful with this word, less we fall into the antisemitic assumptions of the past. The Pharisaic movement was a broad-based reform movement, taking the understanding of faith and worship from the Jerusalem Temple into synagogues and homes. Jesus was part of this movement. Jesus was a pharisee.
Its like labelling the critics of Lloyd Geering leading up to the 1967 heresy trial as ‘Presbyterian’, and then going on to assume every Presbyterian thought the same and wanted him found guilty. Whereas, of course, Lloyd was himself Presbyterian and the majority of Presbyterians at that General Assembly cleared him of all charges.
So, its much better to understand Jesus’ critics in our text today as an elite alliance of religious leaders opposed to Jesus, and as members of the governing class committed to maintaining the unjust, hierarchical, societal status quo.
The other word in this part of the text (v.11), ‘sinners,’ needs likewise to be dealt with thoughtfully. For then as now it’s a useful moniker for anyone you dislike, or disagreed with. Like the word ‘heretic’. In this context it was particularly used of women by traditionalists who did not approve of their presence at public meal tables. Such women were regularly labelled as ‘prostitutes’ or ‘slaves’ regardless of their social status or role at the meal.
Story two. The sick daughter and the important father. But note this story is purposefully woven into story three (the sick woman) a process called intercalation. We are meant to read both stories in the light of each other.
Both are about women. One young, one older. Both are about suffering. One suffering for 12 years, one dying from their suffering (remember no morphine back then). Both have crossed the socially constructed barrier between the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean,’ the defiled and undefiled. One through bleeding. One through death. Both touch with Jesus, thus also defiling him. One touches the fringe, the tassle of his prayer shawl, and one Jesus takes by the hand.
Which is probably one of the most radical verses in the whole of the Christian Scriptures. Young girls were on the bottom of society’s power pyramid. In many, most, places they still are. And she is dead. Defiled. Polluted by death. But Jesus takes her hand. He reaches into the stigma, the chaos, the suffering of this wee outsider and invites her – indeed all the marginal – into a different, alternate future.
I don’t believe Jesus resuscitated her. Or that her carers had misinterpreted her symptoms and erroneously thought she was dead. Or that she was just sleeping. Or that God in Jesus suspended the divide between dead and alive, and brought one who was dead alive again.
What I do believe is that Jesus had the courage called faith. And inspired people to carry on, after his death, that courage by forming groups of misfits who would enter into the chaos of one another’s lives.
What I do believe is that men in despised and shamed occupations, like that tax collector on that day in that tax booth, found the courage called faith in these groups of misfits.
What I do believe is that women suffering from the stigma of long-term sickness, long-term shaming, and long-term labelling, found the courage called faith to join this table fellowship of misfits, and in the acceptance found, in their story telling, a healing.
And what I do believe is that young girls, dependent and suffering, can experience the courage called faith from people who love them – parents, caregivers – and people who take hold of their hand, reaching across the barriers, to gently invite them into alternate possibilities. Possibilities, that bring life not death, that bring promise not pain.
Our task, calling, as a Jesus group today is simply to enter into the chaos of others lives, especially those on the fringes of power, especially those who are suffering, to invite them into an alternate, accepting, and inclusive community. Into an oasis of mercy.[ii]
[i] The title is taken from Jim Cotter’s book of the same name. It is a book of prayers written for his friends suffering from and dying of AIDS.
[ii] This is a phrase used by Pope Francis (Misericordiae Vultus par 12)