Dwell in faith, Pentecost 4, Proper 5 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

The lectionary for today is filled with so many themes that one is overwhelmed with riches. There is old Abraham, the ancestor of the promise; the tax collector Matthew, Jairus and his dying daughter, and the woman Jesus encounters, as if by accident, on the way to heal Jairus’ sick child. And in the Epistle, there is St. Paul, commenting on the meaning of trust that fills and spills over in all these people.

The Greek word for faith, “pistis,” is the same root contained in the word for “trust,” which really means to dwell in pistis/faith.

So let us look at the trust all these people put in their God and, later in the Biblical story, in Jesus, the Incarnate God.

One must listen to the story of Abraham with the trust of a child and ask the questions a child asks when first hearing this story: How did God speak to him? Why did God choose Abraham? How could Abraham, at a time when travel was so terribly difficult, take his whole family and his animals to cross to another land without knowing what he would find there?

We can only guess at the answers to these questions, but of one thing we can be sure: Abraham was convinced that God called him, that God made promises to him, and that God would keep these promises even when it seemed that it was utterly impossible that they would be fulfilled. Remember the story of the sacrifice of Isaac?

St. Paul gives Abraham credit for having this utterly convincing faith. It was not adherence and obedience to laws that made this possible for Abraham, he tells us; it was Abraham’s complete trust in the God of promises that made him leave his home in order to become the father of not just one nation, but of nations.

A similar kind of trust propels the persons in the New Testament stories. Here is Matthew, a tax collector, who obeys the call and becomes a disciple. The tax collectors were despised in the day of Jesus because they collected taxes for the enemy, who in this case was Herod Antipas. The tax collectors were lumped together with the sinners by the Pharisees, in that same suspect category that they placed the other people who were attracted to and were welcomed by Jesus’ love. It is most probable that Matthew and Jesus had seen each other as the rabbi passed by the market place of Capernaum, there by the Sea of Galilee.

On this day Jesus utters an invitation to the tax collector who sits alone in the booth, despised and avoided by the other citizens. “Follow me,” Jesus tells him, and without any recorded question or hesitation, Matthew gets up and does just that. But he doesn’t stop there; he invites Jesus to eat with him.

The houses in Capernaum were open during the day, and anyone could look into the main rooms. So the passers-by and all the curious who heard the exchange between Jesus and Matthew gathered outside or in the courtyard towatch them eating while reclining around a low table. Some of the Pharisees got close enough to talk to one of the disciples, men who were also there, reclining and picking up the offered food with their fingers. The Pharisees asked what they will repeat on many other occasions: “Why does your teacher do this? Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?”

A Pharisee, conscious of his moral superiority and high position in the community, would never do this. Eating with someone meant acknowledging that the person is not inferior to you. Of course Jesus heard the question; he was meant to hear it. He offers an answer that comes from well-known prophetic Scriptures, something the Pharisees knew well, not something that tradition dictated. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It is how you treat one another that matters to God, not the rituals that you keep, he tells them.

The conversation continues, but is interrupted by a man who has an urgent need. This is not one of the despised; this man has authority and is respected. But he kneels before Jesus to ask him a favor, not for himself but for his beloved daughter. The request to follow is now reversed. Jesus doesn’t ask the man, whom we know from the other evangelists is Jairus, to follow him. It is Jairus who begs Jesus to come to his home – not to cure the sick child, but to bring her back from the dead!

Jesus immediately responds to the pain and trust of this father and starts on the way to Jairus’ house. All three of the synoptics tell this story: Jesus is once again interrupted by a woman who, in her turn, is following him. When she touches his cloak he feels power leaving his own body to heal her. By touching his garment, she is cured of a long-term illness. Jairus, the father, has an astounding amount of trust in this teacher and healer he has just met, and the woman with the hemorrhage has an enormous amount of faith that this holy man can help her if she can only get close to him. What an astonishing trust these two people show. And they are not disappointed.

Both the woman and the girl are given new life. Jesus rescues them from sickness and death.

Abraham, Matthew, Jairus, and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak show profound trust in someone beyond themselves, in the Creator of life.

Despite the taunts of his neighbors and maybe the complaints of his relatives, Abraham abandons everything that is familiar in order to obey a God who calls him to a new place.

Despite the derision and dislike of those who know him as a sinner, Matthew obeys the call of the teacher he had heard from afar and changes his life forever.

Despite her despair and shame, a woman ventures into the public in order to touch the man from whom love and power emanate and heal.

Despite his religious position and respectability, a distraught father approaches a man who eats with sinners and begs for the life of his child.

Jesus responds to all of them because he is of the Father. He knows that he has come for the sick, not the healthy; for those who recognize that he is filled with mercy, a power much more compelling than external sacrifice, adherence to empty religious ritual, and mere tradition for the sake of tradition. Always going to the heart of every problem that is brought before him, Jesus sees what is in people’s hearts and responds with mercy and wholeness. May our trust in him find such a response.

Written by Katerina K. Whitley
Katerina Whitley is a writer who has dealt in depth in her books with the persons of Abraham, Jairus’ daughter, and the woman with the hemorrhage who touches Jesus’ cloak. Her new book, From Darkness to the Light is due out in August 2008. Visit www.katerinawhitley.net.