Mercy, Not Sacrifice
June 3, 2002

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

The call of Matthew (Mt. 9:9-13) was immediately preceded and related to the earlier healing of the paralytic. Jesus then had just returned by boat to his hometown. Shortly thereafter, He came across people bringing a paralytic. Seeing the man, He saw his immediate need: spiritual healing. So He said to him, "Courage, child, your sins are forgiven." Right away, the Scribes said, "This man is blaspheming." For who indeed could forgive sins except God alone?

But to show them that He indeed had authority to forgive sins which was invisible act, Jesus did something perceptible. He said to the paralytic, "Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home." He did and walked home. Struck with awe, the crowd glorified God. But not the Scribes.

Immediately after the healing, Jesus walked on and passed by the customs house. There he saw Matthew at his post and said to him, "Follow me." He got up and immediately followed Jesus. To celebrate his call which implied forgiveness, Matthew threw a big party for all his friends - fellow tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps the paralytic and his friends were there, too. After all, both of them were beneficiaries of Jesus' mercy. Jesus was his special guest and together with his disciples ate with them.

Seeing Jesus eat with this motley crowd of sinners, the Pharisees said to Jesus' disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" The Pharisees, "the separated ones," prided themselves in keeping distance from sinners and avoided table fellowship with them. In their view, Jesus was risking a perpetual state of ritual uncleanness by eating with tax collectors who were career extortionists and with "sinners" - Jews who did not observe the Pharisee-prescribed rituals. But Jesus held the opposite view. For Him, table fellowship was a means to and a foretaste of the eternal banquet.

Jesus heard the question and answered it Himself in three parts.

First, He said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do." For those who were despised by the spiritual elite as spiritually sick, Jesus was the spiritual as well as physical healer.

Second, Jesus said, "Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" The quote was from the prophet Hosea (6:6) who was then criticizing the people whose loyalty to God's covenant had no substance. True, they took part in the ceremony renewing the covenant. But as they did, they also believed that God would automatically respond. Said Hosea of this practice, "Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away." He chastised them for failing to make their worship be intimately connected with how they act in their daily lives - their refusal to forgive those who had offended them and to help those who did not even have enough to eat, much less get justice. God would have nothing to do with such a push-button kind of worship.

If God rejected mechanical worship of old, so did Jesus reject the mere external observance of the law by the Pharisees. In effect, for Jesus mercy, not sacrifice was God's will. Neither sacrifice nor the Pharisees' rules of ritual purity could replace mercy. In saying this, Jesus was not rejecting liturgy or orthodoxy altogether. What He was rejecting was their dissociation from daily life. Thus if the Pharisees' liturgy or orthodoxy did not impact on their day to day behavior, that is, they continue to exclude, to be "separated" from God's people, then they excluded God, too.

Third, after His quote from Hosea, Jesus says in His own words, "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." It was precisely to bring down God's mercy on sinners that He had come. The Pharisees, in believing that they were "righteous" and thus did not need mercy, were deliberately excluding themselves from the table fellowship of mercy.

According to one biblical scholar, the Scriptures are consistent in celebrating the truth of the mercy of God. His mercy is more than just clemency and forgiveness; it also includes compassion and fidelity. While compassion is understood as tenderness in action, fidelity is the rock foundation of interpersonal relationships. In short, God's mercy means His loving kindness for all people and His fidelity to His covenant with them.

When we gather together in the table fellowship of the Lord - the Eucharist - let us also gather to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters of the same Lord. And as we celebrate God's loving kindness to us, let us also pledge to celebrate our loving kindness with one another. When we act thus in our liturgies, then Jesus will not say of us, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." For mercy and sacrifice will then have interfaced with each other.