Mercy; not sacrifice. (Matthew 8-10)

November 8, 2010

Chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew are full of stories of physical healing. Leper’s, a Gentile’s servant, demonaics, a haemorrhaging woman, a synagogue leader’s daughter, blind men, and many more all receive healing from Jesus. There are no prerequisites of status for this blessing; only of faith it seems. These people have little in common other than that they recognise the man standing in from of them as one like no other.

In the middle all this healing there is a story of calling. The call, like much of the healing, goes out to an unexpected recipient. A tax collector. This isn’t just any old outcast. This is no bleeding woman or leper, this is someone who has chosen his position on the fringe of Jewish society, and probably chosen it because of money. Tax collectors worked for the Roman occupying forces, collecting tax (funnily enough) for an empire that oppressed the Jewish people, among others. If there is an equivalent pariah in our society it is probably the big city bankers who played with the money of others and enjoyed the bonuses they reaped. But Jesus calls him. Granted, he calls him away from the tax booth and indeed Matthew becomes one of the twelve apostles in chapter 10, but you can understand why this may have seemed an odd choice.

We may understand, then, why at when the Pharisees, a group that spends their whole life trying to live by Gods law, ask “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When they see Jesus at Matthew’s house that evening. I love Jesus’ response to this in verses 12-13. Especially this:

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’

What a great thing to say! It’s like one of those come-backs you think of the day after to have an argument “Oh yeah, I should have said that!” The “go and learn what this means” bit is just the right amount of patronising too, I imagine it said in a really dry voice. Like “come back when you’ve thought this one through, okay fellas?” Especially to say that to a Pharisee, who is so learned in the scriptures (they generally get a bad press in Christian circles by the way).

And “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”; I feel like I could ponder what that means for the rest of my life. It’s wonderful. It’s almost certainly a reference to the Hosea 6 where 6:6 reads “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,  the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.” So on the surface it could be simply taken as a slur on empty religiosity, but there’s more to it, otherwise the Pharisees would have cracked it long ago.

Mercy not sacrifice. Mercy not sacrifice. Jesus is showing mercy on those who are excluded from religious access in first century Jewish society. Indeed, many of the people he heals would have been considered unclean; gentile, leper, bleeding woman. So when the Pharisees fail to see why he would eat with them, they are failing to see mercy as part of their calling as people of God. By focussing souly on rules and boundaries they have blinded themselves to God’s calling to compassionate living.

The focus on sacrifice could be seen as insular, while mercy opens up God’s offerings to more and more of his children. How much of my spiritual life is focussed around mercy? And how much around sacrifice? Sacrifice of my time or desires; focussing on my own spiritual state, or perhaps those in my immediate community. How can I open up this focus to encompass those I have formerly judged?

Mercy not sacrifice. What a mysterious and wonderful challenge. What an exciting message; that God requires of us an open-heartedness that trascends notions of self-serving salvation.

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