Abraham heard God's call and obeyed. As a result God made him a promise that from him would spring a great nation. Abraham heard God's call, leaving his profitable merchant empire in Ur to wander in the wilderness in search of a land that God would 'show him'. He listened to Gods call and responded personally to it. As a result he became patriarch to at least three of the world's major religions, as Paul puts it 'Father of all of us'.
Matthew, the tax collector, was sitting there, minding his own business, when along came Jesus. 'Follow me.' He said. Simply those two words 'Follow me.' And we read that such was the authority of the man that Matthew did just that. Immediately the life of that man, despised by fellow Jews for collaboration with the hated Roman authorities, was transformed. He heard, and obeyed. That is to say he listened to God and responded by following Him personally.
In one way the call of Matthew and the call of Abraham were similar in that they were not tied up in what, by Jesus time, had become a labyrinth of 'correct religious observances'. In Abraham's case the great body of religious ritual outlined in Deuteronomy, Numbers and other books of Law had simply not been written. Matthew and some other disciples of Jesus are criticised by the scribes and Pharisees for not following the directions of religious observance laid down in the Law. The Pharisees often referred to those who did not strictly observe the law as 'sinners' and it was in this context that they questioned the disciples.
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked. The very act of eating with people was an outward sign of fellowship, of friendship with those people. This symbolism of sharing a meal is at the heart of our own religious observance, the Eucharist. Jesus heard them and told them that it was not those who were well that needed a doctor, but the sick. He reminded them of a passage from the prophet Hosea.6.6. "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." The word Mercy in this instance has been translated from the Hebrew ‘Hesed’ a word often translated to mean 'love'. Combining the concepts of mercy, compassion and love gives us a flavour of 'Hesed'. By sharing a meal with those considered to be 'sinners', by sharing 'Hesed' with those outside the orthodox religious circles, Jesus was working to draw them into a more meaningful relationship with God. It was not enough for the Pharisees to know exactly how to sacrifice an animal, what ritual to follow, how to prepare it and so on. If the sacrifice became the centre of the observance, rather than the relationship with God then the whole event would be meaningless. If their relationship with God was important, they had a duty to spread his grace among all people, even the 'sinners'.
Sometimes we can confuse living a Christian life with going through the rituals. We believe that the essence of our religion is that we go to Church, put money in the collection, say our prayers, sing our hymns and generally do our bit for God. 'I do this for God, so God will look after me. If I am good, learn all the right prayers, put enough money in the basket each week, perhaps go to church during the week sometimes as well as Sundays, and read my bible then God is going to protect me, he's going to keep an eye and make sure I'm not cheated and he's going to put a bit of good luck my way now and then.' The trouble with this approach, of course, is that as soon as things go wrong the system crashes. When things go wrong we might think one of two things. Either our sacrifice is not accepted, somehow it is not good enough, 'Oh dear I must be such a bad person, I've done something to offend God, I must try harder' leading to disillusionment and depression. Or we take the opposing view. 'There's nothing wrong with me! I did it right, I said amen properly and nodded my head in all the right places, I put my money in the collection each week, even covenanted it so the taxman would give back his share. No I'm O.K. It must be God that's wrong. Perhaps God is not looking, perhaps He doesn't even exist really!' Or if we're honest we find ourselves on many occasions thinking a mixture of ideas ranging between these.
It is a mistake then to think of worship and service as a sort of 'deal' with God. In fact, if we stop to think about it, how could we possibly give God anything He couldn't give himself? As it is said in Psalm 50 'For the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills. I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the field are in my sight. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.' (10-12). God requires us to put our faith in Him into action for Him in His world, not just to follow rites and ceremonies, giving in our collection and making the right noises in a service. Rather worship, in its many and diverse forms, is there to help us focus on the nature of God, appreciating His love and provision for us and attuning ourselves to become effective disciples, following His will. Like Abraham, through giving glory to God, our faith is strengthened. (Romans 4.20) Our participation in rite and ritual, our involvement in services, acts of worship and acts of fellowship, strengthens and deepens our own faith and relationship with God, enabling us to become more effective channels of his spirit, experiencing and spreading the joy that only God can bring. But ritual worship cannot be the sum total of our religious involvement or experience. Part of our work for God is to help in the healing of the relationship between God and all His created people.
Abraham and Matthew heard God's call, recognised the authority and relevance of that call in their lives and responded to that call. The 'sinners' recognised that there was something about the man Jesus that was worth pursuing. By spreading the love of God among them he transformed their lives, giving them a purpose for living, God's purpose. The ruler of the synagogue, in other Gospels identified as Jairus, when in real need of God's help knew that he needed to appeal directly to God's healing power working through Jesus. 'Come and lay your hand on her and she will live.' Jesus, arriving at the house where the sick girl was already reported to have died, brushes aside the 'phoney' ceremonial flute players and noisy crowd of hired mourners. The woman suffering from haemorrhages also recognised the mercy and love of God working through Jesus, and through her faith she was cured. It was not ritual or sacrifice that cured her, but a desire to find God's mercy, 'hesed', and a strong, unwavering faith in his promise. 'Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall honour me. (Psalm 50.15)
A healing relationship with God, as these people found, is a very powerful thing. God has the power to make us whole in the way he restored Jairus' daughter and healed the woman who touched his cloak. But as Jesus said, 'It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but the sick.' In order to enter into this healing relationship with God we need to recognise that we are all in need of healing. We cannot be like the Pharisees, forever on a religious siding, repeating the same words, holding on to the same ritual and ceremony, expecting God to fall in with our ideas of him. It is not right that we should resist all change in our services and praise. When the Hebrews had something to celebrate, something to be thankful for, they would always sing a new song. We read these words in at least six of the psalms, as well as Isaiah and Revelation. We must also be prepared to 'sing a new song', responding afresh to each new revelation as God unfolds his nature to us. This does not mean dispensing with all tradition, as this is what unites us with the worshipping community of the past and links us to those in the future, but it does mean recognising that God calls us to examine our relationship with Him in an ongoing way, being open to his message channelled through those with whom we worship, and also through those we might not be so ready to share with in God's healing relationship.