Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pack the House #3: The Left Bookend

Long before seminary, long before I ever entertained the thought of "professional" ministry (which had chased me since childhood), right smack dab in the middle of that period I spoke of yesterday of supreme uneasiness and spiritual discontent, I got absolutely nailed upside the head by a 2x4 in the form of Matthew 9:9-13.

"As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

I was minding my own business, sitting at my desk, randomly and truth be told, absently flipping through my Bible when I decided to start reading the Sermon on the Mount for no particular reason.  I had read it countless other times, so why not read it again?  I read it, or at least glanced at it. I don't think anything was really sticking and I continued flipping through until I came to the above passage.  v13 quite unexpectedly grabbed hold of me.  I desire mercy and not sacrifice?  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners?  It was as if I had never seen this verse before.  Quite intuitively, as I would later learn in seminary, I was suddenly and totally consumed by the right questions.

What did Jesus mean by these things?  Who was He saying this to?  Why?  Who were the tax collectors and the sinners?  And what was meant by "sinners"?  Aren't we all sinners?  Why is that significant?  Why were those words significant to the Pharisees.

My mind wouldn't stop, so I grabbed the nearest notebook and began feverishly writing down all of these questions and many more; very aware at the conviction that was beginning to pierce my own heart.  This set off a year long journey that led me to the Hasmonean Dynasty, down paths chasing the Sadducees, the Essenes, first century Palestinian culture, and only God knows how many other tangents.  I had to know in all the depth and breadth I could find why exactly the Pharisees asked the particular question that they did and why Jesus answered the way that He did; and most importantly of all, why did I feel such squeamishness at the passage.  I filled notebooks with my notes and scribbling and thought that maybe I had finally lost my mind.  I didn't have the tools or skills that seminary would later provide, but in the end, I think I would've done my New Testament professor mighty proud.

In those early moments of being waylaid by that passage, I think orthopraxy began to truly take its rightful place alongside orthodoxy, which would only be affirmed in the research I buried myself in.  How I was living out my faith, how I was encountering the world, and who I was as a Christ follower all began to bubble up to the surface in one of those painful, but amazing periods of self reflection.  My worldview had changed and I had been transformed.

I desire mercy and not sacrifice.

For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners.

More tomorrow.

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