This week we continue celebrating the Season of Creation by examining the Pelican.
Matthew 9:1-13 Common English Bible (CEB)
Healing of a man who was paralyzed
9 Boarding a boat, Jesus crossed to the other side of the lake and went to his own city. 2 People brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Be encouraged, my child, your sins are forgiven.”
3 Some legal experts said among themselves, “This man is insulting God.”
4 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you fill your minds with evil things? 5 Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so you will know that the Human One[a] has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“Get up, take your cot, and go home.” 7 The man got up and went home. 8 When the crowds saw what had happened, they were afraid and praised God, who had given such authority to human beings.
Calling of Matthew
9 As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.[b] I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”
Sarah’s Message – Pelican
There was no pelican in that story. You didn’t miss it. It’s not there. In fact, there’s not a pelican in the whole bible. Which might make you wonder: why are we talking about pelicans?
The pelican historically is one of the most dominant images for Jesus. Which is weird. But true. Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn that goes, “O loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord!” Both Dante and Shakespeare used the image of “Jesus our Pelican.” It’s all over Christian art, too. For hundreds of years the pelican has been one of the most dominant images for Jesus. Which is weird.
It started in the middle ages. Medieval Christians had books called bestiaries. These books listed all kinds of animals and their spiritual meanings. We have new-agey books like this today that tell you about your spirit animal. Medieval bestiaries included all sorts of animals and their spiritual meanings.
The most pure and loving animal was the mother pelican. The bestiaries showed mother pelicans piercing their own side to feed their young. Pelicans don’t do that. No one really knows where they got that idea, but it’s wrong. But, it’s definitely not the first or the last wild, weird, wrong idea people have had. So, they believed pelicans sacrificed themselves to feed their children. Then they took it a step further. Some bestiaries have a story where the pelican lovingly raises her children. But when they grow up, they rebel and lash out. She strikes back in wrath and kills them. But then three days later she pierces her own breast, lays herself over her dead children, sheds her blood for them, and they are restored to life. Just like Jesus. O Jesus, our Pelican!
Super weird, huh?
We could just shake our heads and dismiss it. They were so dumb back then. Good thing we know better. We do know more about pelicans.
But it’s Jesus part that’s interesting to me. They’re using the pelican to illustrate a story about God. It’s a story a lot of us were taught. God, like a mother pelican, loves us completely, unconditionally. Until we rebel. Then God is murderously angry. And it takes a big sacrifice to save us. The pelican sacrifices her own life. God sacrifices God’s own son, God’s very self.
The story about pelicans is ridiculous. But what about the story about God? Is it true? Is it helpful?
God loves us. We screw up. God is deeply offended by our sin. And someone’s got to pay to make it all better. We can’t possibly pay enough, so, God sacrifices God’s self. Just like a pelican. Because there has to be justice. It’s tit for tat. Someone’s got to pay to make it better.
There’s a logic in that. This is a story a lot of Christians live by. It hasn’t been the only story Christians have told how we are reconciled to God and one another—not the only story—but it has been the predominant story we’ve told in modern times in the West. I’m guessing most of us grew up with some version of this story. And some of us may still find it valuable, while others of us may have grown really uncomfortable with it.
As a kid I always wondered about this. Am I really that bad? And why does someone have to die? How does that help? As I got older, I stopped asking. Because no one ever had a good answer. But the question didn’t go away. Why does Jesus have to die for my mistakes? Why does the pelican have to kill herself? Why does someone always have to pay? Does that even work?
One of my professors used to say that the hardest thing about reading the NT is to actually read it. We all know what it says. So, we don’t actually read it.
When we do, things get more complicated. Like in this story, for example. Jesus walks around dispensing forgiveness, healing, and dinner invitations all over the place. Virtually any person who crosses his path receives a get out of jail free card. No one asks for forgiveness. No one acknowledges wrongdoing. Some of the folks have done genuinely bad things. Tax collectors were imperial collaborators. They sold out their own people and grew rich in the process. They actively harmed people. When Jesus sees one he says, Great! Can I come over for dinner? And he goes over, drinks Matthew’s wine, and hangs out with all his degenerate friends.
He doesn’t lecture them. He doesn’t hold them to account. He doesn’t seek justice—punitive, restorative, or otherwise. He just sits at their table, drinks their wine, eats their food. Like it’s fine.
In the gospel of Matthew there’s one bible verse that Jesus quotes twice. It’s from the book of Hosea. It’s at the end of our passage. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
He says this to the Pharisees. The Pharisees get a bad rap. But they were good, upstanding citizens who know that it is not okay to be a tax collector. And it is not okay to just hang out with them and act like it’s all fine. There needs to be a settling of accounts. Someone ought to pay for the wrong they’ve done. That’s only fair.
But Jesus says, I desire mercy. Not sacrifice.
Sacrifice can mean ritual sacrifice—two doves for a minor offense, an ox for a biggie. The same logic of sacrifice goes lots of other places. From the pelican sacrificing herself, to God sacrificing God’s self, to the criminal justice system and the way we think about punishment. Someone’s got to pay. Closer to home, we frame a lot of our love as sacrifice. You sacrifice for friends, kids, partners. If something’s good, it requires sacrifice. And if something bad has been done, it requires sacrifice to make it good again. Sacrifice mentality is fundamentally tit-for-tat. Whether it’s two turtle doves or the Son of God—if you want something good, if you want to fix something bad, someone’s got to pay.
But Jesus says, I desire mercy. Not sacrifice.
He doesn’t act like these guys have to pay for all the evil they did. He doesn’t act like anyone has to pay.
We tell this story about God being so offended by our wrongdoing that God demanded a sacrifice to settle the score. But if Jesus is what God looks like, God doesn’t look all that offended by wrongdoing. At least God is not as offended as we are. God finds a group of rich fat cats and says, scoot over and pass the wine.
I have to admit, I’m mostly with the Pharisees on this one. Although I’d like to change. But how can Jesus act like this is all okay? Like no one has to pay for the harm that’s been done? If God is like Jesus, then it seems that God’s not nearly as concerned with the stuff we do wrong as we are.
I find that really disconcerting.
A friend of mine recently went away for a week of spiritual retreat. When she got back, she wrote to a few friends and said “It turns out that the God I say I believe in, and the God I actually believe in aren’t the same. I mean, I profess faith in a God who is infinitely generous, merciful, loving, kind, gentle. I say I believe in that. But really I just believe in that for other people. When I drop my guard and really imagine myself in God’s presence, the God I actually believe in is rigid, demanding, strict, scary. I believe in one God for other people—generous, merciful, and another God for myself—strict and demanding. Now that I’ve realized that, I’m hesitant to even try to reconcile those two images of God, because I’m afraid that if I believe in this gracious, merciful God, then I’ll stop trying to be good.”
I hear her. There’s something safe about believing a strict, demanding, even rigid tit-for-tat world. If grace and mercy are really the order of the day, that opens up a dizzying freedom that’s almost terrifying.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Is it possible we got it wrong? The pelican, God, the way we believe the universe is pretty strict, and someone’s got to pay?
There are other ways of understanding God, the world, how we’re made right.
Maybe the cross wasn’t God’s demand, but just a consequence of human violence. God didn’t demand Jesus die to set things right. Jesus just came and loved, truly, powerfully, mercifully. And that kind of love gets beat up and killed. God was willing to risk that, to undergo the same death we all experience. And so, what was happening on that cross wasn’t a cosmic sacrifice, but divine solidarity. It wasn’t judgment that put Jesus on the cross, but mercy so wide that it knows no bounds. Mercy so unending that it could embrace all that we are, including the worst. And from that deep well of mercy springs eternal life.
It’s not sacrifice, tit-for-tat settling of scores, a rigid order that saves us. It’s mercy.
Do you know how pelicans actually feed their young? They soar over waves, in beautiful, stunning lines. When we go to the east coast each summer, I watch for the pelicans every day. They are gorgeous in the air. They dip down, come up, gather fish in their enormous beaks. They have the largest beak of any bird, and these unbelievable neck pouches that hold food. Then they go back to their nest, and the baby pelicans stick their whole heads in the parent’s necks. Which is so weird. And sounds really uncomfortable. But the parent pelicans don’t seem to mind. They don’t act like it’s a sacrifice to feed their kids this way. It doesn’t hurt. They’re made for it. Giving like this, opening up to nurture another is their very nature. Mercy, not sacrifice.
Jesus, our Pelican.
What if we’re like that, too? No neck pouches. Smaller beaks. But a capacity for mercy that is astonishing. What if this is how reality really is? What if there is mercy far wider, deeper, more powerful than we have ever dared to imagine. We’re made for it. We’re not made to pierce our side and bleed out. We are not made to demand that of others. We are made for mercy.
Go and learn what this means, says Jesus, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Mercy like a pelican opening wide to feed. Mercy like the love of Jesus. Mercy.