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Mercy > Sacrifice; Healing > Law

A sermon on Matthew 9:9-13;18-26 (including references to Hosea 5:15-6:6 and Romans 4:13-25).

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Alex Padurariu on Unsplash.]

I’m wondering if anyone had the same reaction I did when reading through today’s gospel text for the first time this week: wondering why there were words missing.

Two words in particular, at the end of the mini-scene of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees…

When Jesus quotes the scriptures to them as a not-so-subtle call-out about the problem with their legalism and then says: “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Full stop. No additional qualifiers about what it is that he is calling sinners to.

If you are lucky enough to NOT have had the King James Version of this passage drilled into your brain, the phrase probably doesn’t sound wrong in your ears.

It’s a perfectly understandable claim… one that flows logically from what comes before in the interaction and is consistent with Jesus’s larger patterns in teaching and ministry.

Jesus, in contrast to his inquisitors, is not fussed about their insider/outsider categories and purity laws. His ministry is a ministry of inclusion and welcome for those who have been made to feel excluded by the religious powers of his time.

But not according to the King James Bible, or those who have learned its version of Matthew 9:13.

In that version, Jesus says: “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

With the addition of just two words, the whole meaning of the proclamation changes, doesn’t it?

The message shifts from an expression of inclusion, to one of subtle but unavoidable judgment. The subtext is that Jesus is spending time with so-called “sinners” because they are the ones who need to change.

The shift in meaning between the verse I remembered and the verse they we just read caught my curiosity this week. I went on a hunt to figure out where the change came from.

I assumed it was a result of what scholars call a textual variant - a not uncommon occurrence in biblical texts.

After all, it has been 2,000 years since Jesus’s life and ministry and nearly as long since the original gospel accounts were written.

Scrolls and papyri don’t last that long, so the oldest copies of the scriptures that we still have are copies of copies of copies from several hundred years later.

And considering that “copy/paste” and Xerox did not exist for the first 19 Centuries of the church, those copies were all done by hand, Errors, and some changes, were bound to happen.

Usually all I have to do is check the footnotes in one of my study Bibles, which give alternative wordings from variant texts, and sometimes a note about why the variant printed in the translation was more likely.

But in this case… nothing. None of the modern translations I use even noted that there was a variant.

I had to pull out my Greek New Testament and check its footnotes to find the explanation.

The two words about repentance are not found in ANY of the ancient texts. They were added in much later, in medieval times… as in around 1,000 years after Christ.[1]

The reason my study Bibles did not have any footnotes about the added words about repentance is because there is no scholarly debate. Bible scholars agree that don’t belong in Matthew 9:13.

But, obviously, someone thought that they did.

Some monk, or scribe, in the Middle Ages, read Matthew’s account of Jesus’s cheeky response to the religious leaders of his time, rubbing their faces in his inclusive ministry, and thought :

“That doesn’t sound right! Jesus must have meant that he is calling sinners to repentance. Yeah, that must be it. I’ll just add that in to make it clear.”

And then other church people read the edited version, and agreed that really, this version makes a lot more sense. This is the version we should copy. And so, the added words were adopted, and used in one of the most influential English translations of the Bible that still gets quoted today.

It’s easy to imagine how this happened, because the desire to push back against grace… to hedge it round with expectations and laws that make it not really grace any more… is the kind of instinct that we see over and over in the course of human religious history.

We see it in the Pharisees’ offense that Jesus would spend time with the people they viewed as “sinners.”

We see it in the Hebrew people’s desire to be able to please God through ritual sacrifices, rather longing for a community transformed by love.

We see it in Paul’s need to remind the church at Rome that God’s promise comes through faith, rather than through the law.

We see it in our own time when people use religious shaming to tell people with mental health problems that they just aren’t praying hard enough; or to tell women that their fashion-choices are the reason a man assaulted them; or to literally try to legislate morality based on their religious views.

Our human instinct is to look for the LAW that will tell us we can class ourselves as morally superior, and judge anyone who lives and thinks differently than us.

There is actually an evolutionary basis for this instinct.

In his book Blink¸ author Malcolm Gladwell explores the reasons that human beings are wired to make snap judgments.

When we can use past experiences to build categories in our minds that tell us when to trust and when to distrust, we don’t have to deliberate over every decision. These categories are efficient and, usually, helpful.

but one of our most essential categories is Good vs. Bad… and that can cause problems.

Of course, we always want to see ourselves as fitting into the “good” category… but the reality of human nature (and often societal expectations) is always murmuring to us that maybe we don’t…

Maybe we aren’t as good as we want to believe we are.

Maybe sometimes we are bad?

Lutheran theology deals with this reality by embracing paradox: reminding us that we ARE sinners, and that at the same time, we are also SAINTS. We can face the truth of our imperfections while being wrapped in the assurance that God’s love for us in unequivocal and that we were created inherently good.

But we have to be taught this… and it takes a lifetime of daily practice to live it.

Whereas the promise of the LAW is that there can be some objective, measurable standard of goodness, and as long as that standard classes us as “good,” and makes itself believable as a basis of judgment by classing some other group as “bad,” then we can feel secure.

We don’t have to question ourselves. We don’t have to do the hard work of self-examination and confession and learning and growing.

We can feel satisfied in our self-righteousness.

The problem for Christians is that Jesus pushes against this legalistic system of moral categorization.

That’s what upsets the religious types about his habit of fraternizing with “sinners.”

That’s what upset the Pharisees and it’s what presumably upset the medieval monks enough to try to “fix” the story… because it’s only OK for Jesus to hang out with sinners if he has an ulterior motive… if he’s doing it to convert them to the right side of the good/bad binary.

But, the unedited story tells us that shame leading to repentance is not Jesus’ ulterior motive. Calling is.

And when we read the rest of the passage, we get a sense of what that calling is: it is a calling of healing.

To modern audiences, the final two scenes of today’s reading may seem fairly disconnected to the confrontation with the Pharisees, but they are boundary-violating interactions just as much as eating with tax collectors was for Jesus.

The woman with the hemorrhage was classed as ritually unclean by Jewish purity laws. So was the body of the dead girl.

Touching or being touched by either of these women would have defiled Jesus according to the laws of the Torah. He would have needed to go through rituals of purification and be cleared by a priest before engaging in any religious actions.

But Jesus ignores these purity laws and does what he is there to do: healing.

The woman is healed of her affliction and commended for her faith.

The girl is raised from the dead in fulfillment of her father’s faith.

The boundaries and laws are NOT what is important here… just as Paul teaches in our second reading. Faith is all that’s needed. And faith heals.

I saw a post this week from Pastor Jason Ratcliff that I suspect was probably inspired by today’s gospel story. He said, “Jesus never shamed people into change. He loved them into relationship.”

It’s an accurate observation, and it’s a rejection of our instinct to look to the LAW for our justification.

It’s also an observation that calls us into the good news of Jesus’ claim that he came to call not the righteous but sinners.

Because the reality is that there is only one category: No one is righteous, no not one. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

And Jesus came to call us all into the healing power of love. The love that teaches us to stop looking for ways to divide ourselves from others, and instead to look for ways to be part of God’s work of healing.

Thanks be to God.

[1] The TEXTUS RECEPTUS (TR) was used in the translation of the King James Bible, but is no longer recognized as an authoritative source for textual variants, since much earlier copies of the biblical books have been discovered.


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