“Welcome” is used six times in these two verses. That’s a lot of welcome. It kind of makes you think welcome is important. Jesus says welcoming others is welcoming Jesus, and welcoming Jesus is welcoming the one he represents, namely God. Welcoming others welcomes Jesus, which welcomes God; yep, this welcoming stuff is definitely important because who wants to tell God, “You’re not welcome here.”
This also says if you reject these, ‘’Little ones” you reject Jesus. If you reject Jesus, you reject God—that just can’t be good.
Matthew just finished a section on the Cost of Discipleship. Jesus never promises following his Way is easy. Jesus’ Way brings controversy; families split in conflict. Persecution and rejection of those trying to follow the Way of Jesus is the expectation. The Way of Jesus doesn’t maintain the status quo; it means changing the way institutions operate. That’s risky.
In the chapter just prior to this, Jesus quotes the Hebrew prophets from centuries earlier, “Thus says the Lord, I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice.” (9:13) Jesus repeats these words another chapter later, “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice.”(12:7) What’s the deal about love over sacrifice?
There were many religious laws that governed the Hebrew people. The laws were designed to maintain their identity when exiled into foreign lands. Don’t marry outside the faith. Don’t eat foods that are deemed “unclean.” Don’t work on the Sabbath. Circumcise all males. The basic rules of cultural and ethnic identity kept the Hebrews as a nation when they didn’t have land to hold them as a nation. Someone must have asked, “What does it mean do not work on the Sabbath? What exactly constitutes ‘work’? Is it work if I enjoy what I’m doing? I like yard work.” Laws were written to define work: starting a fire, stirring a pot, walking more than a certain number of steps. One law became hundreds of laws.
Laws were decreed for proper worship: who can sit where in temple, men on one part—women another. Laws were decreed about purity and holiness—who could even enter into worship. Only the “clean” could come near the temple of God. Questions and laws formed to define who is clean, who is unclean. All those with physical deformities were deemed unclean, such as the blind, deaf, lame, and those with withered limbs were not allowed. Those with disease and skin conditions were excluded as unclean as were women after childbirth. Those who had broken the laws were definitely unclean. Laws and rituals were enacted for some to be restored after messing up and becoming unclean. They had to sacrifice a goat or a dove, sprinkle blood on the altar, give the priests a grain offering or oil. Offer a sign of your repentance, pay a temple tax, wash three times in that water, wait 30 days or 90 days.
Soon there were hundreds of laws and religious rituals. The people following these rules believed that doing so pleased God. They forgot that they had made the laws. Soon they got so caught up in keeping the letter of the laws, they forgot the purpose of them. They began ignoring the needs of the poor, widows, and orphans—thinking their rule—following and sacrificial religious systems were what pleased God and kept them in relationship with God. Their prophets 800 years before Jesus tried to correct them. Hosea, eighth century prophet before Jesus proclaimed (6:6), “Thus says the Lord, ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God (Sophia wisdom) rather than burnt offerings’” which sounds a lot like the prophet Micah, “…shall I bring a ton of burnt offerings to God? What does the lord require? Not offerings but justice, kindness, humility relationship with God…”
The prophets warned the Hebrews they were so caught up and invested in keeping laws and rituals and man—made religious sacrificial rules that they totally missed that a relationship pleasing to God was one of mercy and compassion for other people. Centuries after those ancient prophets, Jesus proclaimed the same message over and over again. He warned against hypocritical rule keeping by religious people. He taught a simple and difficult commandment instead: love. Love one another.
Jesus knew “love” was an abstract word. Just as the people needed to know what exactly the law meant by, “Do not work.” They needed to know what he meant by the law of love. He showed what he was talking about. What does love instead of rule—following look like?
Love looks like Jesus and his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath in order to feed the hungry men traveling with him. Love looks like Jesus working on the Sabbath by healing a man with withered hand and healing the ones whose skin disease meant they remained isolated. Love was healing people so that they may be restored to community—even if that healing contradicts the Sabbath laws.
Love looks like healing the bleeding woman—even if that meant being designated ‘unclean’ himself and touching the bodies of the dead and diseased and bleeding and cursed—thereby risking exclusion himself. Love over laws looks like offering a cup of water to the thirsty. Love over laws looks like when the woman offered Jesus water from the well, and he crossed social taboo by talking to her and entered her village so that they may hear that God loves them too—even though those people, the Samaritans, were enemies of his people.
Love looks like going to dinner at his enemies’ houses—trying to engage them in conversation face to face —and including the marginalized at that dining table.
Jesus loves by acts of compassion—by caring for people—by including all people in arms of God’s love—by taking care of their physical needs—by giving them community and a place to belong—by putting mercy and care and compassion as the standard against which all else must be measured. Even ancient and sacred laws that his people believed was their covenant with God was secondary to the Law of Love. Jesus was a faithful Jew, devout to his faith tradition, but he violated the law and ritual when he had to in order to offer mercy and compassion.
Interesting to note, Jesus didn’t attack individuals in his path to helping others. The story is never told about Jesus attacking the local rabbi or launching a crusade against a particular person. Jesus confronts the laws that were unjust through acts of compassion—not personal attacks. No individual Pharisee or local priest, no Sadducee or religious leader is ever named as being targeted by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t try to bring any individual down.
I was reminded of all this in this last week in Portland at UMC General Conference. Our UMC is governed by church rules and regulations, church laws that Methodists over the last 232 years have written no doubt believing them as their covenant to one another and their faithfulness to God. Every four years, there is an opportunity to change the rules. In 1972, language was added to our denominational rulebook that is offensive and harmful regarding gay and lesbians. Our language and our laws have become hurtful, not merciful. With patience and perseverance, prophetic voices calling for justice have sought to change our UMC policies over the last forty-four years. Every four years, attempts are made, so far unsuccessfully. Each conference, we hope. Each conference, we have been disappointed. As a person who believes All People are God’s Beloved regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, it has been frustrating. It has been easy to demonize the opponents who discriminate and enforce soul-wounding laws.
I have not attended a General Conference before last week. What I experienced by being there surprised me. It was frustrating and disappointing that the matter was referred to another forum and not even debated or considered for a vote; but I also gained a greater appreciation for those trying to maintain unity in the midst of diversity. There are those who are trying to maintain a truly global church, which spans geographical, theological, and cultural differences. Is it possible? I do not know. Is it his ultimate goal? I cannot be certain. Is maintenance of the institution—that does not allow all people within it to live out their faith convictions—worth the pain that it inflicts? I am not convinced of that. However, I do respect the church, which needed interpreters and interpretive devices so that Russians and Swedes and Africans and French and Koreans and Hispanic could speak and hear one another in their native tongues. A church that was a reflection of Pentecost tongue of fire, each speaking with passion of their deepest beliefs of God’s Holy Spirit was a heart—warming sight. There is something valuable in witnessing that.
I was reminded that while we work to protect and proclaim the full sacredness of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, we must not trample upon the sacredness of those who oppose us. While we seek dignity and full inclusion of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, we must not deny the dignity or inclusion of those who disagree with us. We must not vilify those whose actions or words we do not understand or condone, for that is not loving kindness, or doing justice, or walking humbly with God.
I do believe however—ever more firmly —that we are called to act with justice to those who are treated unjustly by our religious laws. We must love tenderly those whom our denominational language harms. We must serve one another in peace and kindness. We must Welcome All period, humbly knowing that other’s beliefs are a precious to them as ours are to us. We must do what is right and just, and show love for all people—even if others do not understand or approve why we must do so. Moreover, when unjust church laws exist, which bring pain to the souls of God’s children; we must show mercy over law keeping because that is what Jesus did.
May we have the wisdom and humility, the strength and the courage to be God’s people of love.