Mercy for the Stubborn
Text: Matt. 9:9-13
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to terms and phrases about stubbornness, we have no end of colorful descriptions: stiff-necked, adamant, set in their ways, rigid, intractable, mulish, recalcitrant. There are several that have to do with a stubborn person’s head: pigheaded, bullheaded, headstrong, hardheaded. This hardheadedness of stubborn people is described even as far back as our Ezekiel reading today, and even further back. When the Lord speaks to the prophet Ezekiel, He refers to His people having a “a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” But He will make Ezekiel even more headstrong in service to the truth, as He says to His prophet: “Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead.” And indeed, it would be necessary, because the Lord’s people would resist and resist and resist what the Lord had to tell them. He would speak of how Israel would be redeemed by His grace, by His love, and yet they would chase after other bloodthirsty gods. He told them how He would bring all the Gentiles to recognize Him as Lord, and yet they refused to believe that such sinners could ever be salvageable. So while a remnant of the faithful remained and waited for the Lord’s redemption, the rest kept running further and further away. With hard foreheads and stubborn hearts, they ran into myths and self-deception—that they could be righteous, that they could be worthy of the love that God gave them, as long as they kept to the rules they chose to keep, the laws they invented from their own hard heads and harder hearts.
So they developed complicated codes of righteousness. In the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, theses codes and protocols were formalized and practiced by a group that came to be known as the Pharisees. They became convinced that they could do what needed to be done in order to demonstrate their worth to God, to even move God to do something as great as send the Messiah. But they became so stubborn, so hardheaded, that when the Messiah did come—not because of their doing, but because God desired it so—when their God arrived in the flesh in the person of Jesus, they did not rejoice in the righteousness and holiness He brought. Instead, they criticized even His righteousness, viewing their own keeping of the Law as better than His. So when He came and called His disciples, including Matthew the tax collector, who we recognize and thank God for today on his feast day, they grumbled like their flinty forefathers. Why would this Jesus knowingly eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?
Part of us—the part that’s honest about our own stubbornness and sense of righteousness—understands their complaint. We would also take offense if Jesus came to our town and chose to eat in the home of drug dealers and pickpockets instead of our nice, clean homes. There is part of us that can sympathize with the Pharisees that the upstanding, law-abiding citizens of the town are passed up in favor of those who sold out their own people to work for the oppressor government of the Roman Empire, who overcharged their own fellow Hebrews on taxes so that they could skim off the top and get rich at the expense of their own brothers and sisters. If we’re honest, we also want to decide who gets what and why they deserve it. And, like the Pharisees, we don’t even have the good taste to take it up directly with God and His Word. Notice that in our Gospel reading, the Pharisees talk about Jesus, not to Jesus. Rather than asking Him the question directly, they grumble to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” That’s the way we do it, more often than not, isn’t it—not talking to the person directly, but about them with others? We talk about those people who don’t deserve the good things they’ve gotten, who don’t live up to our own lives. We’ll grumble to just about anyone who will listen about the insults we’ve had to bear when we haven’t done anything wrong.
But Jesus can’t be fooled—not by our whispering and quiet grumbling, and certainly not by self-righteousness masquerading as purity. We read, “But when He heard it”—because He hears and knows all—“He said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’…For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus does two things here. First, He protects those who’ve come to Him for mercy and a new beginning. He doesn’t allow the grumbling of the Pharisees to affect those who’ve heard His call and answered, coming to Him for forgiveness and a fresh start in His grace. He’s come for these specific people, He says, and the objections of those who think they have been keeping the rules and looking down their noses at others won’t convince Him otherwise. And secondly, He invites the Pharisees to stop their grumbling and complaining and to recognize their spiritual sickness. If they really want to have a part in Him, if they really want Him to come and eat and drink with them, they need to know their disease. That’s why He follows it up with a challenge, something to open their eyes. It must have stung just a little bit—but very often our ungodly pride needs to be taken down several notches—when Jesus said to these Pharisees, biblical Law experts that they were, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ Go back and reread the prophet Hosea,” He tells them, “Your Lord wants mercy, wants to show mercy, wants His people to live in mercy. Your own acts, your own self-decreed sacrifices, aren’t what He wants. Admit you need mercy, receive it, and let it move outward to those around you.”
Jesus called Matthew to be His Apostle out of mercy. He called Matthew to follow Him away from the tax booth, away from the wealth he was making through lying and cheating. And Matthew, shown mercy by Jesus, eating and drinking with Him first here, then again and again through the next three years, then again at the Last Supper, then again and again in the Sacrament—Matthew left his stubborn sinful ways. He received mercy, received Jesus’ sacrifice, and then went on to show that mercy to others. He wrote the Gospel of Matthew, showing the words of Jesus to countless billions, who have received God’s grace through those words. His gospel was written specifically for the Hebrews, to see how Jesus fulfilled their prophecies, to be like Ezekiel and speak to his own people, those who spoke his own language. Tradition says that after writing the gospel, he traveled east, to Persia or Ethiopia, bringing the words of Jesus with him. And according to tradition, he died a martyr’s death, standing at the altar during the service because of an enraged king who couldn’t get what he wanted from the Apostle.
Through Jesus’ words, written by Matthew, learn to recognize your stubbornness, especially when you’re telling God how He should be doing things. Recognize that you need a physician for your soul. Drop those claims of righteousness and the grumbling and indignant scowls. Come, eat and drink with Jesus here, where He eats with sinners in His holy Supper. Come receive mercy. Be forgiven. Hear His call and follow Him to His cross and all the heavenly riches that await you in His grace. In the name of Jesus, the Merciful. Amen.