Mercy and Sacrifice

Tenth Sunday of the Year. Hos 6:3-6; Ps 49:1.8.12-15; Rom 4:18-25; Mt 9:9-13

At the conclusion of today's Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees to go and learn the meaning of the words, “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” I thought it would be worth devoting today's brief homily to trying to understand these words, especially as they are not quite as simple as they might seem.

The challenge in understanding these words is that God does, in fact, seem to want sacrifice. Sacrifices are made throughout the whole of the Old Testament, from the sacrifice of Abel in the book of Genesis to the sin offerings for the dead in the second book of Maccabees. Furthermore, God often commends those who offer sacrifices to honour him, to thank him, to gain communion with him and to expiate for sin. In the New Testament, of course, we have the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ himself who offers his life on the cross for our salvation. The words at Mass, “This is the Lamb of God,” indicate that we have with us the acceptable Lamb of sacrifice. So God does seem to want sacrifice. Why, then, does Jesus say, “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice?” 

 A possible answer can be found by examining what is meant by ‘mercy’. True mercy is not the kind of arbitrary forgiveness that a despot will sometimes bestow on a helpless subject. For such despots, ‘mercy’ is only another exercise in power. True mercy, according to St. Augustine (City of God, IX, 4), is heartfelt sympathy for the distress of another person, a grief that impels us to help the person if we can and should do so. The word ‘mercy’ takes its name from the Latin word ‘misericordia’, or ‘miserum cor’, which means ‘a sorrowful heart’. So mercy means having a sorrowful heart for the unhappiness of another person. And here we begin to see a connection between mercy and sacrifice. True mercy will always involves sacrifice, because one's own heart suffers for the distress of others. This is why Jesus eating with sinners involves sacrifice, because in the eyes of the Son of God, sin is abhorrent. Sin removes a person from a family relationship with God, turning a person into something bestial or even diabolical. A sinner is, therefore, an object of horror if the eyes of the mind only see the sin. For Jesus to eat with a sinner is rather like Jesus eating with someone afflicted with some terrible disease. The Pharisees see the sin and recognize this as abhorrent. Jesus Christ, however, also sees the person, the lost child of God. Jesus therefore shows mercy in seeking out sinners and saving them.

So mercy involves recognizing a person, sorrowing for the distress of that person and sacrificing for that person. Mercy, therefore, always involves sacrifice, but sacrifice does not always involve mercy. It is possible to go through the motions of sacrificing to God, but with a cold heart - to treat sacrifices as impersonal instruments for buying salvation rather than acts of love. Even worse, it is in fact possible to sacrifice to demons, in the sense that it is possible to destroy what is good, even one's own life, to promote evil. Suicide bombers are a contemporary example of evil sacrifices. Another, rather more silent holocaust, is the creation and destruction of human beings in laboratories, which now takes place in our own country on an industrial scale. In the First Reading, therefore, the prophet Hosea laments,  “What I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.” Sacrifices are good only when they are founded on mercy, and that mercy must itself be an expression of love.

How then can we grow in the virtue of mercy? Well, at the very least, we must be careful not to refuse works of mercy. God shows us mercy, and we must be careful not to harden our hearts towards others who need our help. But above all, we must ask God to give us merciful hearts, to ‘melt’ our hearts. There are many prayers that we can use to make this request, but I recommend in particular prayers to the Divine Mercy. I would like to conclude with one such prayer,  “O blood and water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in you.”     

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 8th June 2008

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