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Bassanio is in love, but he does not have the money to woo Portia, so he goes to his good buddy Antonio and asks for a loan. Antonio is a shipping merchant, but all his money is currently tied up, so he asks for a loan from Shylock, who only demands that the money be paid back in three months. If is Antonio is late, it won’t cost him much… only a pound of his flesh. Antonio is confident in his ability to repay, so he agrees. Then comes a storm at sea and two of his three ship are lost. Three months are up and Shylock is demanding payment. Antonio doesn’t have the money, so Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Portia arrives on the scene and pleads for mercy for Antonio. She says to Shylock:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
That is from Act IV, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice, and I’m always reminded of it when I read those words of Jesus: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Our patron Saint, Matthew, who we celebrate today, was likely despised by everyone. He was a tax collector. The Jews hated him because he worked for the Romans and collected from them. The Romans hated him because he was a Jew and collected from them. When he was growing up, I can’t imagine that he said to himself, “Ya know, when I grow up, I want a job where everyone hates me,” but circumstances led him to it. Yet, those same circumstances placed him in the exact place he needed to be in order to have an encounter with Jesus and Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
That evening, Matthew and other tax collectors and sinners sat at the table for a meal with Jesus. When the religious leaders saw this, they wanted to know why Jesus spent time with them instead of condemning them. Why he didn’t force them into the religious system that would bind them to the law and the sacrifices, and Jesus responded, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus said, “I have this radical idea: why don’t we just forgive them? Why don’t we just love them, because they are in the image of the Father?” Ultimately, the religious leaders gave their answer to this radical idea: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
As we consider ourselves, we can come to believe that the religious leaders are correct. Our circumstances can be similar to Matthew’s, where we intentionally or unintentionally find ourselves in a life apart from God, and when we consider God, we can believe that there really is no chance for us, so we condemn ourselves. Instead of, “Crucify Him!” It is “Crucify me!” I deserve to give up my pound of flesh. I am deserving of my punishment. But like Matthew, it is there that Jesus finds us and calls to us, “Follow me.” When you hear his call, don’t hang your head thinking you are forever lost. Instead, go. Sit at the table with Matthew, the other tax collectors, and the sinners—sit at the table with them and with Jesus and “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Understand that the Lord desires to show you mercy.