Proper 5, Year A
June 8, 2008

When Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to come and follow, his new disciple gets an earful of advice and a string of remarkable examples. Jesus initiates and responds to a series of startling encounters, beginning with the tax collector himself, when he calls a collaborator with the Roman occupiers to his side. He dines with untouchable folk. He lets an unclean woman touch him. He goes to the side of a dead child. The report about this fellow certainly does make the rounds – because he is breaking every rule in the law book.

Most of these encounters are about touching and being touched. Jesus lets people touch him, both literally and figuratively. He’s not worried about ritual uncleanness or about protecting himself from the pain of the world. He is willing to suffer with the outcast and the hurting. He has compassion, mercy, loving kindness toward those who hurt.

Compassion rather than sacrifice is about just that – the willingness to be vulnerable rather than self-protective. Sacrifice here means the temple sacrifice, in the ritual of restoring relationship with God by offering an animal to be sacrificed in the temple. It’s about the fine points of the law. It does require something costly, but it lets that animal, and the priest who offers it, do the hard work. It’s actually rather mechanical, and does not require any terribly difficult work from the person who offers the sacrifice. Jesus and Hosea report that God is more interested in our response to another person’s suffering. That is the righteousness of faith Paul talks about.

Jesus responds to the suffering around him because he allows himself to be touched. In other encounters in the gospels, it’s often reported that he was “moved with compassion,” a construction that literally means he felt the pain in his gut. That’s what compassion really means – to suffer along with another. When Hosea and Jesus remind us that God wants compassion rather than sacrifice, we’re being invited to cultivate that capacity for compassion, to let down the barriers that keep us from noticing or feeling the world’s pain. It doesn’t mean wallowing in that pain. It does mean walking alongside.

I heard a story recently about a priest’s encounter with a new parishioner. This woman came to her priest and said, “I keep thinking about committing suicide. Can you help me?” The priest saw this woman’s obesity, and said, “you’re already doing it. You’re eating yourself to death. I don’t know what to do about it, but I am willing to come and pray with you until we find an answer.” The priest went every day to this woman’s home to pray with her. Two weeks later, the priest was sitting in her office and answered the phone. Someone was looking for a place to hold a regular meeting of Food Addicts Anonymous. The church had space, the meetings began, the parishioner found the support she needed, and she has lost nearly 150 pounds in the last year. She has indeed found new life.

None of those small encounters was terribly earth-shattering. Yet each involved the willingness to be moved in some way – the parishioner asked for help, the priest responded, somebody else who’d been driving by the church asked for a space to meet. And please note that none of those encounters requires a priest. Any one of us can offer to pray with another. Any one of us can speak truth about destructive behavior. Any one of us can help connect a need and a healing resource. Small vulnerabilities can change the world. When we’re open to them, we find encounters and opportunities like that all the time.

Follow Jesus; go and do likewise. That is where our salvation lies – in the willingness to touch and be touched, in human encounter with the pain and joy of created existence. Visit those in prison, heal the sick, spread a feast for the hungry stranger, walk alongside the grieving. You will find Jesus there with you.