Proper 5: Hosea 5.15-6.6;
Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26
WHY IS there anything? The question taxes our minds, but also bids to break our hearts; for, such is the scale of suffering, that sometimes it seems as if it would have been better if there had been nothing at all. Why is there anything? It is a question a child can ask; for children are natural philosophers.
Why is there anything? We have learned from Professor Richard Dawkins - and if we have not yet learned, it is high time we did - that it is perilous to claim that there are questions that fall outside the province of science to investigate. But if there are any such questions, here surely is one.
Why is there anything? The Jewish mystical tradition has a one-word answer to that question. All that is exists because of an original act of "chesed". The Jewish mystics paraphrase a text from the Psalms freely but truthfully. "The world is built with chesed" (Psalm 89.2).
There is no word in our Hebrew scriptures more important than "chesed", and none more difficult to translate. Our English versions ring the changes. "Chesed" is "loving-kindness", "mercy", "faithfulness", "loyalty", "steadfast love" - these are but some of the unavailing attempts to pin the word down.
"Chesed" is fundamentally pro-active love, love that acts without prior cause to do so. Why is there anything? There is something rather than nothing because God is "chesed" - pre-emptive, unilateral, and initiatory love.
In our first reading, we have one of the primary texts of the Bible, and it is a text about "chesed". The prophet Hosea speaks of "chesed" as what God desires in his people. God looks for "chesed" because "chesed" is what God is. "I desire 'chesed' and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."
The importance of this prophetic text is that it illuminates much else in the scriptural story that might otherwise remain baffling. For example, it goes a long way to explain that puzzling character, Jesus of Nazareth.
Hosea's ringing words - "chesed, not sacrifice" - meant much to Matthew. They helped him make sense of what Jesus says and does. In our Gospel, we hear Matthew's version of a story he took from Mark.
To the astonishment and outrage of the local clergy, Jesus sits down to eat with "tax-collectors and sinners", with those who fell scandalously short of the exacting standards of religious respectability set by the professionally pious.
According to Matthew - and here he adds to the tale he has taken from Mark - Jesus justifies his action by appealing to our text from Hosea. To share a meal with those shunned by everyone else is "chesed".
It is ex nihilo love, "the love that hung the sun and all the stars". It is a love that brings into being a state of affairs which, for these pariahs, had not existed before, a relationship with someone who does not condemn them.
"Chesed, not sacrifice": Matthew loves this text, and he will quote it again. When Jesus is accused of encouraging his disciples to "break the sabbath", by allowing them to pluck ears of corn on the day in the week when no such "work" is permitted, he appeals once more to Hosea's words (Matthew 12.7).
"Chesed, not sacrifice": why are these words so important for Matthew? If the author of the Gospel that bears his name was indeed Matthew the tax-collector, the same Matthew whose call we read about on Sunday, then it is no surprise that he twice quotes this tremendous text. Matthew has known from his own experience what it means to be blessed by "chesed", to have been called out of non-being into being by creative love.
His job - collecting taxes for the hated oppressors, and siphoning off much of the takings for himself - would have made him in most eyes a nothing, a no one. Now, called by Christ, there is, as Paul will say, "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5.17). Love bade him welcome, the one whom all despised.
In fact, the disciple Matthew probably did not write the Gospel attributed to him. That attribution was made much later than the original anonymous text. But we can still be sure that behind the Gospel with which our New Testament begins is the experience of someone who knew what "chesed" means, who could testify to the creative grace that makes a somebody out of a nobody.
"Chesed, not sacrifice"; "the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings": we can infer, from what we shall read in weeks to come, that the author of the little book with Matthew's name at the front had had some experience of sacrifices and burnt offerings, and that those rituals had done him no good.
What Hosea was saying in the eighth century BC to Israel, and what Matthew was saying to the first-century Church is what both are saying to 21st-century Christendom. What God wants is more "chesed", and less religion.
Text of Readings
Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel:
15I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favour:
1‘Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
2After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’
4What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
5Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
13The promise that Abraham would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’). Abraham believed in the presence of the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ 23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26
9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
18While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ 19And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. 20Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ 22Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. 23When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, 24he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. 25But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26And the report of this spread throughout that district.