john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Shame: Mercy not Sacrifice

    Good Shepherd 5/6/2005 (Communion Service)

    Romans 4.13-25, Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

    The words of a response we use quite often at the start of our communion:

    Jesus is the Lamb of God
    who takes away the sin of the world.
    Blessed are those who are called to his supper.
    Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,
    but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

    Based on the words of the Centurion in Matthew 8.8. (The centurion's servant was the one needing healing and Jesus wanted to go to his home to do the healing).

    Why would the Centurion say he was not worthy to receive Jesus in his home? He wasn't an outcast - he was a man with status. We can assume that he wasn't a poor man - he would have been comfortably off. We can guess that his home would be well-furnished and well looked-after... so, why...? (Pagan v. Jewish leader; secular man v. holy man ...) etc

    Perhaps above all he'd be aware of what others would be saying about him if he had Jesus in his home:

    "Who does he think he is? It's a disgrace. He should be ashamed of himself."

    The respectable people, the people who followed the religion of the temple and made sacrifices there, would be scandalised by this shameful episode. And if Jesus came to his house then the Centurion himself would feel ashamed. But Jesus, as we know, carried on to the Centurion's house, and healed the man.

    The story of the Centurion comes near the start of a section of Matthew's gospel where Jesus performed all sorts of healing miracles, or spoke all sorts of healing words, and all of them were beautiful gifts given to people who were shamed by others and ashamed of themselves.

    Today's gospel reading is part of that series of stories. And it carries the stories of three people:

    Matthew, the tax-collector, who Jesus saw at work and to whom Jesus said, "Follow me";
    An unnamed woman, who, desperate to stop the bleeding she had suffered for twelve years, touched Jesus, and who Jesus told, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you";
    A leader of the synagogue (who Mark's gospel names Jairus) who came to Jesus seeking healing for his daughter, who seemed dead but Jesus revived.

    Matthew's job could be described as a customs officer. Customs officers collected tolls at the boundaries of regions ruled by Rome. Their taxes went to the local Roman governors. So the taxes that Matthew collected at Capernaum went to Herod Antipas. Customs officers had to pay a fixed annual sum to lease the customs of their area. They stood to gain if their income exceeded their lease; they had to pay the difference if their income fell short of the rental.

    Sat at his toll booth on the edge of Galilee, Matthew's daily concerns were the concerns of all his customs officer colleagues - will I take enough to pay my way this week? And the people, naturally, hated him because his living took money from his people and passed it on to the imperial authorities.

    Matthew reminds me of a man I knew in another church who worked as a debt-collector. One of those blokes who knocks on your door and takes your telly away if you've not kept up your gas payments. He knew he had a job which other people didn't like. Taking money and possessions from the poor to give to the rich.

    He knew that many of the more 'respectable' people he went to church with probably silently thought about him, "He should be ashamed of himself." But times were hard, jobs were hard to get, and it wasn't ideal, but it was something.

    Because of his job, he didn't have many Christian friends, spent most of his time at home or socialising with the other men who he worked with. But he had a religious background and one day he felt he heard very clearly, Jesus saying, "Follow me." So he did. And the more he followed Jesus the more he knew that he was valued and loved, for himself; and he felt less and less crippled by the feeling of shame he had about his work.

    I guess that's how Matthew must have felt, after he got up and followed Jesus. And to those in his neighbourhood who'd shamed him, Jesus said, "I demand mercy ... not sacrifice."

    The woman with the blood disorder was covered in shame. It was shameful enough just being a woman in that place and time: in a male-dominated society women were expected to stay at home in seclusion. The law held women to be inferior in all matters and expected them to be submissive. In a prayer which Jewish men prayed each day, they thanked God that they had not been born as a woman.

    Women with bleeding were even further ostracised from society because in the law, menstruation meant ritual uncleanness. A woman who had suffered from bleeding for twelve years would have been regarded as ritually unclean - untouchable - for all that time. She couldn't sacrifice at the Temple because she'd contaminate it. She couldn't even touch anyone or be touched by anyone, because that would contaminate them.

    But she dared - or was desperate enough - to touch Jesus. And this woman, invisible to society, Jesus turned and saw her. And this Son of God called her his 'daughter'; and this would-be king of the Jews blessed her for her great faith - "Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you." No more shame for her.

    That woman's story reminds me of a friend I have who has M.E. It's a condition which she has had for almost twenty years now. It started with a nasty virus she had, and really she never recovered from because she has very little energy to do anything, and she is very vulnerable to any sort of illness going around, so she has to just stay at home protected from it all most of the time. She manages to get up and do things for only about two hours a day.

    Perhaps because no-one's yet worked out what causes M.E. and how to cure it, people misunderstand my friend. Her company very generously kept her on sick pay for many years - but you can imagine what some of her colleagues would have said about that: "While we're working our guts out she's just sitting around doing nothing - and she's still getting paid ; she should be ashamed of herself."

    I confess I sometimes feel uncharitable towards her because her husband is one of my best friends, we used to do lots of things together, but now because he has to stay in and look after her he doesn't get out much at all. That can make friends resentful: "Isn't it a shame Derek can't come out with us?" Yes it is a shame. A shame.

    Jesus said to the haemorrhaging woman, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you." I know my friend does take heart from her faith, even though healing, for her, is a long time coming. Her faith is stronger than the shame which surrounds her unusual and awful condition.

    And to those who brought shame on the haemorrhaging woman, Jesus said, "I demand mercy ... not sacrifice."

    Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. And a passage from the Jewish Talmud reveals the status of the head of a synagogue in Jewish society:

    "Our rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar. If he does not find the daughter of a scholar, let him marry the daughter of one of the great men of the generation. If he does not find the daughter of one of the great men of the generation, let him marry the daughter of the head of a synagogue."

    Above those in accountancy, above those in teaching, above those in medicine, way above 'the people of the land', the synagogue leader belonged inside polite society. Part of the elite, the favoured ones. Inside holiness.

    So, in his Capernaum synagogue, Jairus's daily concerns would be the concerns of all synagogue leaders - to order the assembly of God's worshipping people, teaching the congregation, keeping them faithful to the Torah, the religious laws that ruled their ordered society.

    But when his daughter died, things fell apart for Jairus. The synagogue was not enough because it had no good answer to death. A good Jew - among the best of Jews - but now he was ashamed to go to the temple because the law regarded his dead daughter as unclean. Unclean by death - and so outside Judaism, unclean by death - and so outside holiness. Holding his dead daughter this most holy man was suddenly shamed - enfolded in the grief and judgement of uncleanliness.

    This holy man had become contaminated; no longer welcome in the temple to make sacrifices. Shamed by his daughter's death. So he knelt at the feet of a greater holy man. And received Jesus' mercy.

    When I thought of Jairus yesterday I couldn't help thinking of Jeffrey John, a man who has given his whole life to the service of the church, one of the Church of England's great scholars and teachers whose books I have learned a great deal from, and have used to help others understand the faith.

    When something shifted in his life - he was offered the post of a bishop - and the spotlight fell on him, and his sexuality became an issue, and he was denied that post, something in a way died. Something in him died. And something in the Church died. All of a sudden this previously-respectable church leader was shamed by many because of his private life. In some people's eyes this holy man had become contaminated; no longer welcome in the temple to make sacrifices. Shamed by his sexuality.

    It is to his credit that throughout the episode which rumbles on in the life of the church, Jeffrey John has kept his faith in Christ and continued to celebrate it and teach it and encourage others into it. He has survived the poison of the voices muttering "shame".

    And to all of them Jesus says quite clearly, "I demand mercy ... not sacrifice."

    From the stories we have heard today I suggest we can learn two things: that Jesus lifts up those smothered in shame, and that we can either create shame or help take shame away.

    When we're thinking about someone else, and we hear a voice inside ourselves saying, "They should be ashamed of themselves," we might remember the words of Jesus, "I demand mercy ... not sacrifice."

    And when we hear ourselves or someone else saying, "I feel ashamed," we might remember the words of Jesus, "Follow me..." "take heart..." "be healed"...

    Let us close as we began: with that response from the communion service, and take the words we say to our hearts:

    Jesus is the Lamb of God
    who takes away the sin of the world.
    Blessed are those who are called to his supper.
    Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,
    but only say the word, and I shall be healed.


    Some of this material draws on a sermon I preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Cambridge, on 6 June 1999.

    It also owes something to the book Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattison, and the notes produced for a small group discussion on that topic by Revd Dr James Grenfell, during his time with us in Kirkby.

    And also of course to mimetic theory, on which a trawl around the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary website is always rewarding in sermon preparation.