Sacrifice or Mercy?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew 9:9-13

 

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  We sometimes lose sight of the extraordinary way that the Lord Jesus spoke and taught as One having authority.  These words were a direct correction and challenge to the Pharisees of His time.  These men were known as the religious holy-rollers of their day.  They carefully studied and applied themselves to fulfilling everything within the Law of Moses.  They did so to such a degree that they found it necessary to really separate from much of society in order to remain unpolluted by the society.  The goal was to be separate in order to perfectly fulfill the Law of Moses.  But clearly for the Lord Jesus, there was a problem with not only their goals, but also their methods.

These Pharisees wielded great power and influence in Jewish society at that time.  They paid close attention to every move of every preacher and teacher who was not one of their own.  It is natural that they paid close attention to the Lord Jesus.  They noticed that Our Lord did something they could not understand.  Actually they could not comprehend it or tolerate it.  Jesus sat and ate with tax-collectors and sinners.  These were people who did not go through the motions of the ultra-religious Pharisees.  They lived in whatever way they chose and did whatever they thought was best.  They were distant from God.

As we are now in the second day of the fast, we are encouraged to begin to meditate on the great mercy of a God who would send His Son to us in the flesh.  Over and over again, we see the Lord trying to find ways to draw near to the people that need Him most.  He isn’t looking to be the God who looks down at us from high above.  He desires to be the God who can speak face to face with us.

There is a chance that in our hopes of being pious and Orthodox Christians who fast and pray, we might also become much like the Pharisees in this passage.  They observed the law and the codes almost perfectly.  They grasped the shell but couldn’t understand the essence of the meaning.  It is like a child who is fascinated by the beauty of a pineapple that fell from a tree but has never cracked it open to discover just how wonderful it is inside. This is why the Pharisees question the Lord’s behavior and why He in turn questions them.  “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

What was the Lord speaking of?  He is quoting from the prophet Hosea and His goal is to remind them that God is not really impressed with sacrifices and observance of minute details when such observance makes us less human.  This is not an impressive way to show your love for God.  What really does impress God is the way we treat others when they are not our own.  How do we treat those who are different?  How do we treat those who do not know God?  Do we lock ourselves away behind giant walls or do we try to engage and shine a little light into those dark corners? Do we hide our light under a basket or do we try to make Jesus Christ a reality for others?

Today we celebrate St. Matthew the evangelist.  He was a tax-collector.  If the Lord had never taken a chance on him, the world would never have known his name.  But He did take a chance on him and it left such an impression that Matthew changed his ways and served Christ faithfully.  The fruit of the Pharisees was religious obedience leading to more isolation and more judgment of others.  The fruit of Christ led to an evangelist who introduced the world to the love of God.  And Matthew could truly speak of this love, because this love was shown to Him in the most personal way. He met Love in the flesh.

What about us?  We have started the fast.  We have sacrificed our favorite foods.  I pretend that Cookout doesn’t exist during these 40 days.  I’ve given God a sacrifice, but where is the mercy?  The whole world is in desperate need of Jesus Christ. We have been blessed that He sat at the table with each of us sinners.  He didn’t wait for us to become holy and then sit with us.  He sits and eats with us so that we can become holy.  And He continues to sit with us today.  So now we are in a position to act like the Pharisees or like St. Matthew, the former tax-collector.  We can do our best to sacrifice to God or to show mercy.  We can ultimately judge others by the law or  we can evangelize them by the law….. of love.  And Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

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