I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Eve of the Feast of St. Panteleimon, July 26, 2013
By Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Antiochian Archdiocese Convention, Houston, Texas
In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read the account of the Lord Jesus calling the tax collector Matthew, the author of this Gospel, to follow Him and to be one of His disciples. We then read of how Jesus and His disciples are sitting with many tax collectors and and sinners and eating together with them. The Pharisees, who were known for their precision in following their particular interpretation of the Law of Moses, objected to this scene and accusingly asked Jesus' disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Matt. 9:9-11)
We look back at this incident from twenty centuries of hindsight and of course know that the Pharisees are the "bad guys," while Jesus is the "good guy." But in the first century, the Pharisees were most certainly not the bad guys, at least not as far as the general society of Judaism was concerned. The Pharisees were well-respected leaders in the community, and they made sure that Jews followed their traditions as they had been written—all 613 commandments that they counted in the Law of Moses. Eating with public sinners, especially traitors to the Jewish people and collaborators with the Roman conquerers like tax collectors, was not something good Jews were supposed to be doing. So when the Pharisees ask this question, it's a good question.
Jesus hears the Pharisees questioning, and He responds to them Himself, saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:12-13).
There's a lot packed into that brief response, but let's first look at the Old Testament allusion that the Lord makes here. "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" is a quotation from the sixth chapter of the book of the Prophet Hosea. It is part of a longer passage that reads like this: "What shall I do to you, O Ephraim? / What shall I do to you, O Judah? / Your mercy is as a morning cloud / And as the early dew that goes away. / Therefore I have cut off your prophets; / I have slain them with the words of My mouth, / And My judgment shall go forth as the light. / For I desire mercy and not sacrifice. / And the knowledge of God / More than burnt offerings. / But they are as a man who transgresses the covenant; / There they despised Me. / Gilead is a city working vanity with troubling water. / Your strength is that of a pirate; / The priests have hidden the way; / They have murdered the people of Shechem, / For they have done lawlessness" (Hos. 6:4-9).
In this passage, Hosea speaks a lament from God over the people of Israel, who have become unfaithful to the covenant He made with them. It is a sad, sad passage, as is much of what Hosea writes about the unfaithfulness of Israel. But there is something quite specific here about the kind of betrayal of the covenant that Israel has committed. They've distorted the worship of God.
One of the misconceptions that people sometimes have of the Old Testament is that its central message is one of obedience to the Law, and that through that obedience there is reconciliation to God. But if we read the Old Testament that way, we are reading it through the eyes of the Pharisees. Their teachings had so bound up the people of Israel that Judaism had become a religion of strict observances, of duties and traditions, of practices, but they had removed its heart.
The heart of God's covenants, whether the Old or the New, is really the same. The two covenants actually always were about the same thing, though the Old's purpose was to point toward the New. But they really were the same. Both pointed to the knowledge of God through love. That is why we read in Hosea those words that Jesus quotes in part: "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, / And the knowledge of God / More than burnt offerings." God's desire for us is mercy, which is love, and that we may know Him. Knowing God is how Jesus Himself defines eternal life in John 17:3.
Now, some may come away from this image from Hosea and from the scene of Jesus shooing away the Pharisees as He eats with tax collectors and sinners and conclude therefore that all those details about sacrifices and burnt offerings in the Old Covenant and even the details of liturgical worship in the New Covenant are really all pointless. It says right there that He desires mercy, not sacrifice, right? So that means we just need to love people and be merciful to them, and nothing else matters, right?
If we were to conclude that, then we would have to skip over what is perhaps the greatest poem to mercy and its power in the whole of the Scriptures, the most beloved and memorable Psalm 50, which begins so gloriously with "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy," the cry of the Prophet King David as he repents before the Lord for his crimes of adultery and murder. In that Psalm, we read similar kind of language: "For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would have given it; / But Thou delightest not in whole burnt offerings. A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit, / A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 50:18-19).
Same thing, right? No point in liturgical worship, no point in all those priestly traditions—just love God in your heart, and everything is fine, right? No. That's not right. You see, the way the psalm ends is this: "Then shalt Thou be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, / With oblation and whole burnt offerings. / Then shall they offer bullocks upon Thine altar" (Ps. 50:21).
Listen closely to that then! "Then shalt Thou be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, / With oblation and whole burnt offerings. / Then shall they offer bullocks upon Thine altar." These words are spoken by the priest as he censes the church during the Divine Liturgy before the holy gifts are offered to God. Why? Because we are laying aside all earthly cares, because we are repenting of our sins, loving God in mercy. And that makes the sacrifice possible. It makes the sacrifice meaningful and powerful. When we have done those things, then we offer up that sacrifice.
The point is precisely this: The proper worship of God only happens within the context of a heart that is broken, that is merciful, that is repentant, that is loving, that is laying aside the cares of life. When the heart has done that work, then the worship of God yields the knowledge of God, which is eternal life.
We have to resist this urge to set things like mercy and love in opposition to the traditions and teachings of the Church regarding worship and spiritual discipline. Yes, it's possible to engage in the outward forms of worship and spiritual disciplines and yet be devoid of their inner content, and that is precisely the sin of the Pharisees and also of the whole nation of Israel whom Hosea laments with the words of the Lord. It is why Hosea says that "the priests have hidden the way."
But it is also possible to engage in apparent acts of mercy that are devoid of the knowledge of God. You can be charitable yet have no charity. There are certainly people who pile the money on the poor without actually loving them. There are people who go out into the world and even sacrifice their comfort to help others yet who do not know God.
When we look at the whole of the Scripture, the whole of the Tradition of the Church, we see many elements which, if emphasized singularly, could force the whole to fly apart in pieces. But those who denigrate the traditions of worship and spiritual discipline would do well to remember that the worship of the Old Covenant was given—word for word—by God Himself (cf. Leviticus). And they would also do well to remember that Jesus told His listeners to obey the Pharisees but not to imitate their example (Matt. 23:1-3).
And those who would denigrate the works of mercy and love, desiring to hide away in mystical high places without showing hospitality, without giving alms, without showing kindness to those suffering or in need, praying only for themselves and not for the world, would do well to remember those awesome words from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, that all of mankind will indeed be judged by how we have ministered to "the least of these."
It is true that some of us have been gifted by God more generously with some gifts than others. Not all are called to be apostles or evangelists or priests. But some are. Not all are called to pour out works of mercy on the poor. But some are. But none of us should neglect any of the commandments of Christ, even if we find some of them easier to obey than others. And none of us, in our weakness for fulfilling some of the commandments, ought to say that those commandments are not needed. They all are, and we all, as the Body of Christ, are joined together to minister to one another and to the world, each according as he has been gifted by God.
And how beautiful it is that we should remember all these things on the eve of the feast of that great merciful unmercenary healer, Panteleimon, whose very name means "all-merciful." He was one who authentically and holistically knew God, whose mercy and love made his sacrifices and oblations truly well-pleasing to God, and all were unto his salvation. May we imitate him.