the penultimate WORD
Series 1999 - June Canon Jim Irvine
"I did not come to invite virtuous people, but sinners," said Jesus.


Jesus said to them, ‘Go and learn what the text means, "I require mercy, not sacrifice."
I did not come to invite virtuous people, but sinners.’
Matthew 9: 13 New English Bible

Jesus' criteria for discipleship had been an issue from the beginning. His enlistment of men to accompany him was different from the normal pattern of recruitment, and, frankly, disturbing. Not only were some of his choices questionable. Some considered them to be wrong.

Matthew's invitation to leave his position as a tax gatherer is a good example. Oh, the authoritative voice of Jesus may well have moved the heart of this suspicious man. But that doesn't explain why Jesus addressed Matthew and invited him to follow him. Couldn't he have found someone more suitable? Shouldn't he have found someone more suitable?

Apparently not.

Matthew's exclusion by others, and in particular by the religious and the righteous, shows the differential treatment shown to bad characters - tax-gatherers and others - by those who knew what discipleship meant. And what they saw in Matthew and his like left him wanting for more, for a lot more.

What did the Pharisee look for in a follower?

The question did not reveal their willingness to lead. The question did not even include them as willing followers. They remained outside the issue. But that didn't prevent them from holding a view that moved them to ask in a low, confidential voice, "why is it that your master eats with tax-gatherers and sinners?"

Sowing a seed of speculation and of doubt.

Their whispering, beguiling voice charmed the ear: Your master eats with sinners. Not that I am saying that you are a sinner. But, that he eats with sinners. Are you sure that you have exercised sound judgement by joining his company? Just look around you! Who are these people? Not the stuff disciples are made of, certainly!

And, we are told, Jesus heard it…

What did Jesus look for in a follower?

"I require mercy, not sacrifice," said Jesus to the Pharisees. "Go and learn what that text means."

His comment would have taken the Pharisees by surprise.

They knew about sacrifice, and its requirement. That is clear enough. They knew about mercy as well. But they had not considered the two together naturally, and they had not given much thought to the priority of the one over the other. Their fidelity to ritual eclipsed by mercy - what could that possibly mean?

The disciples seem to have shown mercy, and Jesus recognized it. They may not have had the opportunity to keep the prescribed observances. Perhaps it wasn't part of their nature. They may well have not had the inclination to offer sacrifice. Knowing themselves to be outcasts, and an excluded minority, they may have anticipated their welcome visiting the Synagogue, or going up to Jerusalem and visiting the Temple. In any event, their sacrifice was left unmade.

But mercy, that was an opportunity that presented itself at every turn, both in season and out of season. Mercy, not a respecter of persons, was the currency of exchange between everyone with whom they came in contact. And, in need of mercy themselves, they knew its value extended to others in need.

He requires no less of us today.

Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine

Series 1999