Karl Barth on Matthew 9:14-15; Mercy builds, Religion buries

On February 9th 1919, the young pastor Karl Barth preached a sermon to his Safenwil Switzerland congregation.  His text was Matthew 9:14-15.  In this text some of the religious leaders of the day (the disciples of John as proxies for the pharisees) criticize the relational ministry of Jesus.  The essence of the criticism was that Jesus and His disciples did not follow the traditional religious practice of fasting.  Jesus answers their criticism in verse 15.  In the following quotation from the text of Barth’s sermon, he writes a “paraphrased” answer also.  This answer challenged me and hopefully will challenge and exhort others who may be trapped in the prison of religiosity, works, traditions, casuistry and empty disciplines in trying to find answers for spiritual questions and a relationship with God:  Barth says, “we can imagine him (Jesus) wanting to say to them” [read us and you also,  the religious works community][the words in the squared parentheses are mine, to help clarify]

“Within you, seriousness and truth are awakened; you have heard God’s call, and you have taken it on yourselves to be obedient.  And you have become aware that you need something that is now missing.  You see that you have taken on something enormously difficult, that you are involved in a fight that you are not equipped to win.  You are never let go by what is of God: it is in front of you and beckons you, and it is behind you and pushes you.  But always it is a spur and prod in your conscience and a high and distant goal.  It is never power and love, but only law, like the air in which you live.  That is why you fast.   That is why the Sabbath is so important.  That is why money burns your hand, so that you have to give to charity.  That is why you are so very careful in fulfilling your obligation to prayer and belief.  That is why you are so unrelenting, so avid, so conscientious, consuming everything in your zeal.  That is why you are so serious and pious.

In the fine points you are very meticulous because you do not yet know the great gift that can now be given human beings.  You bring God sacrifices because you have not yet experienced God’s mercy.  You prepare the way for the kingdom of God so avidly, with pick and shovel,  because it has not yet come to you.  Because you have not yet found the God you seek-that is why there must be prophets and Pharisees…Out of this great affliction, out of this painful privation, come your fasting and all the other things that are so important to you, and finally your [religious types] damnation of me [Jesus].  Out of humanity’s great distress, which knows only about human things, about its own will and exertion (cf Rom. 9:16), but not about God’s Savior, comes your piety.  Oh, you may keep your opinion about your fasting, so go on, keep doing what you are doing as long as you must, but do not forbid others to go a different way because the affliction and the distress have been taken from them [praise God for that..! In my weakness I am one of “them”].

Here God’s salvation has been victorious, and now bursts forth again the great message and invitation; with me [Jesus] and around me the joyous marriage feast is happening.  Not that my disciples would be better people than you [we most certainly are not!].  We have no intention of competing with you, so let us not argue about that.  But here with me [Jesus] the distress that oppresses you has been done away with.  Here there is not only awakening but also rising, getting up and walking; not only God’s call but also God’s presence; not only fighting but also victory; not only sacrifice but also the mercy that exceeds all understanding.  Here is God’s kingdom.  Here there is power and love; here is the divine as the air in which one lives.  Here nothing is lacking, nothing only sought, nothing only strived for, nothing only known, nothing only said.  What no human has been able to say has here become an event.  Here God has helped human beings and given them what no human can give them.

Those who stand here stand on the divine and heavenly side of life.  That is why they do not fast.  That is why they do not have to be pious.  That is why they may go a new way in a cheerfulness and freedom that is of God.  We do not come too near to you, so you need not be concerned about us, and to you remains your fame…Do not worry about us as long as your own righteousness gives you no reason to worry about yourselves, as long as you do not recognize the dilemma and distress in which you stand.  To know God’s mercy is more than sacrifice (cf Matt 12:7), and God’s kingdom is more than piety.  Judge me as you will, but do not impede the way that I and those who belong to me must go; for here is more than Elijah.  And if you ever recognize that God is with us, the God who makes an end to distress, then you will cease accusing me [Jesus] and instead join me in praising this God.”

This is a powerful presentation of what grace and mercy can do to change a heart.  These words do not denigrate the spiritual disciplines, but rather put them in proper perspective…as relationship building not as approval seeking.






2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary Duffee says:

    Re Karl Barth: Very enlightening! It assures me I do not need to rely on empty traditions to please God….but to accept His unconditional grace and mercy and to humbly accept these gifts. m

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