Sunday 21 September 2014

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

The story of the call of Matthew, and dinner with the tax collectors. One of those touch points where Jesus's direction towards the cross is just kind of nudged. A minor row with the religious powers over who's allowed to come to dinner. Which of the three parties - the tax collectors, the Pharisees, Jesus - do you feel sympathy for here?

It is entirely reasonable, it seems to me, that the Pharisees object to Jesus eating with tax collectors.

The tax collector was a part of the structure of Roman world. And the Romans may have given the Jews the aqueduct, sanitation, decent roads and so on. But they were also one of the nastiest races ever to walk this earth. Those who see their law codes and shiny ancient buildings may admire them. But in their vicious oppression of those that opposed them - mass executions, crucifixion, the rape of female captives (and male ones) they make ISIS look like amateurs.

The creation of the roads, the buildings, the upkeep of the Legions that kept the natives down - these all came at a price. The Romans taxed people for the infrastructure that kept them under control. Didn't tax them as heavily as the United Kingdom is taxed, of course. But then they didn't provide a National Health Service, social security or subsidised train travel.

So Matthew as a tax collector was a part of the structure of oppression set up by the Romans. He was a cog in the Inperial machine. When John the Baptist is talking to tax collectors, he tells them - dont collect more than you should. Which presumably means the tax collectors were able to adjust their operating margins for their own good - add on a service charge, as somebody might say today.

We don't know whether Matthew was putting a premium on what he was supposed to be collecting. But he was part of that system, from Syria to France, of extracting money from people to pay for their own suppression. It was a rotten system, if you were a Jew or a Gaul. Though it was quite nice for the Emperor.

If Matthew follows Jesus, what does it mean? The loss of his job? The loss of his family's income? We don't know anything much about his personal life. Maybe he couldn't marry because which nice Jewish girl would marry a tax collector? Maybe he was young, but building himself up in the business. Making a solid start in the extortion trade, so he could settle down later. Maybe this was the only job he could get, and it was the only way he could keep his head above water.

Jesus calls him, and he follows. And there's another apostle, ready to be trained, to be sent out. When he goes to sit and have dinner with Jesus, he's not even the only tax-collector there. There are so many of them the Pharisees have a right moan. What is it about Jesus that he attracts this riff raft?

"I desire mercy," says Jesus, "not sacrifice". The sacrifice could just be done. Just like coming to church on a Sunday morning. It's a ritual. It costs money sure - a bull or lamb was an expensive item then, as they are now. But as part of the Jewish society, it's just a thing. You offer, you're better with God. To be fair to the Pharisees they were much better than that. They really wanted to be holy. They worked hard to keeping themselves free of sin. They wanted God to love them - and to love them for being good. I've got a lot of time for them, really.

But the tax collectors were part of the other a Establishment. The one that kept the Pharisees, and all the other Jews, well down at heel. The one that could, if it fancied the fight, take the images of its gods into Jerusalem. The one which would one day come down on Judea like a wolf on the fold. What's Jesus doing with them?

"I desire mercy," says Jesus, "not sacrifice". They're establishment stooges, these tax collectors. They're traitors to their people. Some of them are crooks. But Jesus is going to love them.  Following Jesus doesn't stop us identifying sin - especially this kind of structural sin, where a society is based on it, dependent on it. It was easier for the Pharisees to identify this kind of sin than it would be for us, sometimes, I suspect. Because - for all the pantomime villain reputation we give them - the Pharisees were the victims too, here. But we, where our cheap clothes and air-freighted food and our jobs or our pension funds can depend on oppression - we have to look a bit more carefully, but still call it out.

But then, like Jesus, we have to remember that those we have identified, the ones that run the unjust systems in our world - they're our neighbours too.

It was those two clashing systems - the Roman Empire and the religious establishment - that came together to crucify Jesus. And on the Cross, he prayed that the ones who did it to them should be forgiven.

Maybe a message we can draw from the Gospel of Matthew is simply this. That there's no human system that we should not be brave enough to judge. And no human being that is no precious enough for God to save.

1 comment :

  1. Not a taxing read at all - nicely exegised (what is the verb for doing exegesis?), nicely said.


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