Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 12:1-14) transports me to the Oakley Elementary School of my childhood, where the list of prohibited activities seemed to grow by the minute. I suppose that was due to our ability to somehow turn every latest craze into an occasion for punching or getting punched. Yo-yos were outlawed. Rick Flair impersonations were outlawed. Card games (especially bloody knuckles) were outlawed. Giving someone the goob sign and a “gotcha!”was outlawed. Tapping the drum beat of Wipeout on our desks was outlawed. And mercy was outlawed. That is, the game of mercy, where two people would interlock fingers and each would try to bend the other person’s hands into a state of sufficient pain that would necessitate a submission call for mercy. Triumph!
A game of mercy. That makes me think of a book a friend was recently telling me about – Work, Play, and Worship, written back in 1972, about the time I was playing mercy at Oakley. The book’s premise is that middle class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. Jesus confronted a similar dynamic in an environment like that of my elementary school, where mercy, among many other things, was outlawed. The passage today shows a Sabbath day showdown between Jesus and some Pharisees who argued that harvesting whole wheat for the hungry and healing withered hands on the prescribed day of pious repose were prohibited violations of God’s law. Jesus and the Pharisees were in a test of wills, a game of mercy, with the hands of compassion interlocking with the hands of compliance in a death grip. Jesus bent back the hands of the legalists when he claimed sovereignty over the sacred day. The disciples sat by stuffing granola into growling stomachs as they watched the contest. Who would bend? Who would cry mercy? As it turns out, it was God who cried mercy. I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. We understand from the prophets that bulls and scapegoats and pigeons were not the only victims of ritual observance. The sick and the hungry had to sacrifice their opportunities for healing and nourishment. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus assumed authority to dictate the terms of the law. The whole crux of the covenant was to create compassionate communities. It was not designed to set the suffering up for a game of gotcha.
Have mercy. That phrase is a common response to trouble and trauma and tragedy. Have mercy. It’s a blues lyric, whether ZZ Top is waiting on the bus or Eric Clapton has done somebody wrong. Have mercy. For Jesus, it was a call to compassionate care for suffering folk whose hands had shriveled and for starved sojourners who happened on a field ripe for harvest on a holy day. Have mercy. It tells us we don’t need to sacrifice any more goats or kick any more cats or tell any more suffering people to take two aspirin and call us after the holy time has expired. Maybe this is the moral of the story: when you interlock fingers with someone who has the power to straighten shriveled hands, even if his own hands are scarred with nail prints, go ahead and cry mercy.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Mercy and Sacrifice.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.