How do you read the Bible, if at all?
Do you skim through it briskly in preparation for a reading at Sunday worship, or do you perhaps follow a programme of daily Bible reading notes with helpful guidelines and practical applications for even the more difficult texts?
Or, like many another, do you only engage with it in case of crisis…at times when you really need to be reassured and comforted?
All those approaches might have something to recommend them, but there are surely times when we benefit most if we put ourselves directly into the story…That’s the secret of the style of prayer developed by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.
The sort of contemplative prayer he taught involves spending time visualising every detail of the biblical scene set before us, really getting under the skin of the story, joining the cast until we realise that HIS story is truly our story as well
Often it seems very easy to decide who we’d ally ourselves with in a given passage…Sometimes, as when Jesus was talking Nicodemus, or to the woman at the well, there’s really only one person sharing the stage….But if we look at this morning’s gospel, it’s nothing like so clear-cut. In just a few short verses, we have a whole series of encounters…Surely lots of opportunity to insert ourselves into the story…the only question is, “where?”.
As we begin to read, this appears to be an account of the call of Matthew, and in Matthew’s own gospel this must surely be a VERY IMPORTANT EVENT.
There it is, fair and square….
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.
You’d imagine that the next few verses would involve an intent theological discussion about just where Matthew now thinks he is going, or possibly Jesus unrolling his credentials as the Messiah, and inviting the assembled company to rejoice.
You might decide to identify with Matthew, in that instant obedience to a call to follow…in the radical departure from everything that has been familiar…everything that has provided the backdrop to your life so far….but if you want to pray your way through the whole passage, that’s going to be harder.
There is a celebration, but it is a very edgy one…probably not the sort of party where you and I would feel at home.
That’s always the problem when mixing with Jesus – he will invite his friends along, and too often they just aren’t desirable types.
It’s not enough that he picks up Matthew from the tax collector’s booth…once back at Matthew’s house, the company gets even worse.
Where do you think you might fit in that crowd? Are you partying with Jesus, or looking on anxiously with the Pharisees?
You know, they really did have a point...
It’s a truth that has been known and passed on by parents for millennia...Bad company can corrupt good character.
As gatekeepers preserving the integrity of the traditions of Israel, the Pharisees are terrified of anything that might dilute the purity of God’s chosen people. There’s even a psalm to support their viewpoint
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”
In their pursuit of purity, they are worried that Jesus will be corrupted by all these “sinners” he seems happy to consort with.
But, oh dear, that just doesn’t seem to matter to him at all.
He’s not concerned about the risk of corruption from those unclean people hanging around.
He sees past their current state, and connects not with the distortions and handicaps of damaged lives but with the precious children of God beneath…
Perhaps most of all, Jesus recognises potential.
For him, Matthew is not a hated symbol of Roman oppression and personal greed – he’s a lonely man in need of a purpose and a friend…more, he’s a potential disciple…
There is no doubt that Matthew is ready for his call – as ready as ever an invalid might be to set aside her illness and live life not as “the woman with MS” but as her real self, a being with a name, and relationships, mother, daughter, wife…
But we move on…for the party is crashed by a distraught father.
Once again, though, he is first presented in terms of his status
He is “a leader of the synagogue” – one of the great and good – one who, according to the pharisaic approach, should be sure of God’s favour worked out in an easy life of blessing.
But something has gone wrong. He’s dealing with that worst of all parental nightmares, the death of a child.
Even despite ourselves, I guess that many of us will ally ourselves with him as we try to pray this passage…will offer to God our own urgent entreaties for the continued safety of the precious beings whom we brought to birth…
It’s to this urgency that Jesus responds. In an echo of the opening verses, we hear now that it’s Jesus who gets up and follows – responding not to the man’s importance but to his need.
As being outcast was no impediment, neither is being an insider, one of the religious elite...Jesus responds as readily to either.
But there’s yet another interruption to the flow of the story, another change of gear and direction.
Another outsider – a woman, and one with a haemorrhage at that….Someone who has waited for 12 years on the margins of society…weakened by the constant bleeding that leaves her all but invisible to observant Jews…
She is doubly outcast – but her need cries out to Jesus with all the power that she herself lacks.
She may not have the courage to ask, but, like Matthew and the tax collectors and sinners at the table, she receives freely the healing she most needs.
At this point in the story, things become alarmingly apposite for me…One of the struggles of ministry, as of any job without firm boundaries, is the way that the urgent so often drives out the important. Jesus is on a life and death mission to a child…surely a case of blue light and loud sirens, of the utmost urgency…BUT here is a woman who no longer dares to voice her own troubles, but who has the courage to act to address them.
She has waited 12 years, - so this is scarcely urgent – but it is hugely important – for her and for us.
This is what Jesus recognises…
So he stops. He takes the time, even amid his headlong mercy dash, not only to heal her but to relate to her
“Take heart, daughter…Your faith has made you well”
She is given a new identity – no longer the woman with no name, but an adopted child.
She, who has nothing, is given credit for her own healing
“Your faith has made you well”
The important takes priority over the urgent…The outsider is given precedence over the pillar of society…and as Jesus delays, a child lies dead.
Do you even WANT to be in this story now?
Maybe this is one morning when we could comfortably turn over the page…
And yet, and yet, the truth is that we are all in this story, like it or not.
Each of us…with needs that are glaringly obvious to the world…or so deeply hidden that we have yet to acknowledge them to ourselves…
Each of us is dependent on God’s grace and mercy…Each of us would be lost if Jesus didn’t call us…
When Jesus mixed with the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees feared that someone might be changed by the encounter.
Jesus was sure of this…
Because our transformation is the heart of his mission, then as now…
“I come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentence”
Have you found yourself in the story yet?
If you have, take a moment to thank the One who calls you from sin to salvation, from the margins to the centre, from death to life.