Philip Casmer

Follow Jesus; Learn Mercy

by Philip Casmer on October 10th, 2021
Matthew 9:9-13

The feathered quill hovered over the parchment roll. A  drop of ink swelled at the nib, straining to stain the day’s work just a short fall away. Words had flown from pen to page so far like water from a spring; oracles from the Spirit, prophecies of old fulfilled, the story of things bubbled up unbidden, from a reservoir deep and pure, crisp and refreshing. But, for a moment, his hand held it all back, white-knuckled, trembling. Just more than three decades on from the day and he could still “see” it, the point he’d come to now, his own story to put to page. His mind traveled back to where it started – that dusty highway outside of Capernaum where carts groaned and merchants passed, where his pen jotted their loads and names and tolls. Where their coins clinked into his basket, and their eyes hated white-hot. And where some days, when he didn’t hate back, he was ashamed. 

He recalled how he’d retreat sometimes into the booth, to draw the shade over their stares and shut the door on their epithets. It was his own holy place. They wouldn’t welcome him into their holy places anymore, his Jewish brothers and sisters, not a Roman shill, a traitor-Jew. For he’d taken their coin, the tax, and paid the Caesars – and himself, and handsomely. The life of the tax-collector… He’d always been a little strange, a little “off”. So when a friend had beckoned once, long ago, promised wealth and comfort and all the things his poor parents had never achieved… “It’s lonely, but it’s work.” …It seemed to fit. Then, “sign here, gather this much, and whatever more is yours…” And he had and it had been good for a time. But the isolation was like an amputation – family, and friends like a limb cut off, just a phantom feeling that kept you awake and a calloused nub that reminded you of what you’d lost. No smiles of Sabbath, no festival song, no fellowship at feasts – not with family, not in the synagogue, not near the temple, not for such as him. Not to say that he was alone. He’d made friends. Fellow tax-collectors, other “sinners” – some certainly so and some just so-called. The unfortunate and the unwelcomed; they welcomed him and he, them. Yet still, some days when he was not alone like this, in the loneliness, something was missing.

But these weren’t really the story. His mind’s eye searched that one particular day; hunted for the protagonist he was called to pen. The one who’d passed by his booth many a time, paid the tax whenever necessary, whatever was asked. That’s what had caught his attention at first – never a look of disdain from this one, certainly no word of scorn from those lips, just kindness, and coin. It’s what had called him to steal away mid-afternoons just to hear for a moment or two – or an hour if traffic was low – the kind of teaching that rang with a richness coin could not provide. It’s what had dragged him breathless along earlier on that day, when others had gone running shouting “Jesus”, to crowd with them about that boat at the shore. And what he saw that morning… 

It had been friendship for sure (which he missed) – friends pressed through the crowds and elbowed a way and presented their lame friend on a mat. It had been hospitality too. So many crowded in. So many were sick. So many were strange… So tired that Jesus looked. But he got out of the boat, stepped through the shallows, and stopped at the mat to say a kind word (something about forgiveness, which Matthew hadn’t really understood then). But more than that, it had been authority he’d seen (the kind he didn’t know he’d been missing) – the kind that said, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And he remembered it because that had happened. The lame man with vitality stood up, picked up his mat, and walked away… And it was miraculous and astounding, a match with the striking words he’d heard from the mouth of this Jesus many times before. 

It was this on that day after he’d walked back to his post, that made him crane to look, to find, to search out Jesus’ face. Perhaps Jesus would pass by. To the west, the setting sun-rays danced puddles of gold on the lake and shot lambent beams across the road; it was hard to see. Down that way, he thought he glimpsed that face entering the scene. Lost it in the crowd for a time, and then found it again – right outside his booth – face to face. He could remember the wrinkles on that brow, the crows feet around those eyes of that warm brown shade. He could hear still the soft power of the voice, the one simple command, “Follow me.” And he remembered, despite the thought that this moment wasn’t real or that perhaps someone had been standing behind him in the booth and Jesus had been talking to them… He remembered how that one command made him forget everything that had gone before – all he’d done, all he’d made – as though it mattered not a bit. And how he’d glimpsed at that moment what he needed, met Jesus’ eye and saw it there. So he grabbed his cloak and bag and walked after his Savior. And he recalled, in the burgeoning moments of the gracious, merciful fellowship and friendship and hospitality that would adorn the next three years of his life and forever change the rest of it, how he’d known right then that such a friend as this Jesus was just the kind his friends needed to know. 

And so there’d been the feast. Loud, and long into the night, and the last of its kind for Matthew. Friends he’d called had come. And they’d been curious about his excitement. They’d whispered and wondered about his notorious guest. Were taken aback when he introduced them to him and Jesus welcomed and embraced them and kissed them. And, as they spoke with him, they began to know it too, some of them, that something was different: that authority with power was here, yet with friendship, more, hospitality, even mercy that called them to follow him into something more than they would ever have been – a family where they belonged… That knowing sharpened particularly when the onlookers spoke, in a conspicuous and grating way that all could hear… The Pharisees had come. They called the guests “sinners” and questioned what Jesus was doing there with people who belonged nowhere. 

As he remembered the lively room crumple into dead air, Matthew had an inkling – a sense of greater things, a perhaps – that the Lord in his providence had often brought onlookers like Pharisees to moments like this because later others would look on this meal through his written words. And those ones would be the kind who struggled just the same with what hospitality is. Because they would be unworthy of it themselves – some ashamed of great sins they’d done – and the presence of sinners would remind them of their sinful-self image and their own inadequate feelings would tempt them, strangely, to push like people away or judge them or leave them out or to be sure to never be in their company at all. And there would be ones that would struggle with believing that there was really more than one “class” of people – the proper kind and the improper kind – clean and unclean – righteous and sinners… and they’d be tempted to draw the lines on the basis of the rules they keep and whether others do the same – falsely believing that God judges things outward as they do and that God loves their sacrifices particularly… And there would be ones who loved Jesus too – who knew his call and who followed him but who were afraid of what others might think or say and so, sometimes, would be tempted to say nothing to those who needed to simply know  – by way of an invite or a conversation or a coffee – that they could be God’s family too, that his love was for them also.

For them all, Jesus’ words broke into Matthew’s memory – kindly said, but in kind – “Don’t you know – the doctor doesn’t come to see to the healthy, he works with the sick. You need to go and learn the meaning of things – as God said through Hosea – ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

And Matthew had learned it. He couldn’t help but recall it, in many of the moments he recorded, that one moment – the one – that made them all good news… When Jesus finally embraced God’s wrath, arms extended on that cross, and died — and it was sacrifice — his righteous, perfect life, exactly what God desired, for sinners’, for Matthew, disciples, for others who would yet come, for those who would read here… And it was mercy — undeserved love poured out indiscriminately. And though it was terrible death he had finally given, it had been swallowed up in victorious, embracing life. For Jesus appeared among them, open-armed, holes in his hands and “peace” on his lips. To them – who had run away, who had hidden, who had been afraid, who had betrayed – so that they could learn by his mercy shown to show it to others. 

And so, though it had been spontaneous – an overflow of the love he’d received from Jesus, Matthew’s banquet for friends was an example of this – mercy, hospitality, love poured out for people who needed it. It was the kind of thing Abraham had done when God had graced him with a visit and with an astounding promise. Abraham had made bread (lots of it) and killed the calf and made a feast. It was the kind of thing Matthew remembered in Jerusalem after Jesus had gone. When each had shared with the rest whatever they needed. When they had been glad and prayed and sang and invited into that family any who would hear and listen, about Jesus, and learn about mercy with them. And Matthew knew, as he had when he started and would again as he progressed, that that was why he was writing…so more and more could follow Jesus too: learning to make room for others to know the one who had made room for him so long before.

The writer’s white-knuckled grip gave way as this memory smiled onto his face – hours and years and a weight of mercy encapsulated in a brief and passing moment. And to be penned in words, so Matthew kept writing. And the spring continued to flow. And it was pure gospel… And, as he told about his banquet and those friends he’d called, and the guest of honor that graced them with his presence and healed them with his words, he shared what he’d learned. That to follow Jesus was to learn mercy – undeserved help and love, once received, with an open heart abundantly applied. That such a thing as could make the tax-collector at the road-gate into the gate-keeper of the gospels, that was a thing to be shared with the sick and the sinful, with hospitality – by way of a party or a smile or a handshake or help – because that’s how they’d be called, no longer nobody, but righteous, God’s somebody’s, his family.

And so that it may be…

Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you. (Jude 1:2)

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