The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s082g14  St Matthew  St Mary’s Halswell  20/9/2014

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice" Matt 9.13

This is one of those passages that rolls so quickly off the tongue, yet is really so pregnant with meaning!

When I read these words I picture God throwing up the divine hands in horror and despair - pleading for mercy - to stop the millions of people praying for this, that and the other.   And I wonder about christians as well as people of other faiths exhorting us to trust and pray.   How does God deal with all these, most often competing, requests?

It reminds me of the 1970 play, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jesus getting inundated with the multitude of requests for healing and the lovely words of the song by Tim Rice, sung by Mary Magdalene: ‘Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to / Problems that upset you, oh. / Don’t you know / Everything’s alright, yes, everything's fine. / And we want you to sleep well tonight. / Let the world turn without you tonight. / If we try, we'll get by, so forget all about us tonight.’ (1)

Is this what the text: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice” implies?   Give God a break?

The text certainly does not mean that God filters the prayers by listening and responding only to those prayers which come with the appropriate sacrifice.   God isn’t interested only in those prayers which come with an offering of a bull or a ram - or by extension those that are worded in the fine phrases of the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible, or those in ecstatic speaking in tongues.   We will not get our way with God by using any magic words - because mostly getting our way means that someone else doesn’t get theirs!

I often have cause to ponder just how much money I could make if God acceded to all my requests when it came to the weather :-)   How does one balance the legitimate need farmers have for rain, with the bride’s desire for fine weather?

We need to see the context of this saying, and it is in response to the complaint of the Pharisees: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”   When we exercise our faith, it is always useful to think who is left out of the process.   For the Pharisees, they expected any new religious figure to associate only with people like them.   Actually, for my money, I reckon the real sense of the Pharisee’s question is: ‘Why does your teacher bother to eat with tax collectors and sinners?’   This starts to give us a feel for what motivated the religious people.   It was they who spoke the correct orthodoxy, they who were up with all the religious debates, they who were worthy of Jesus’ undivided attention.  It was they who could quote correct chapter and verse of scripture about how God hates women who commit adultery (2), backsliders (3), people who eat lobster (4) and people who express their intimate affections with someone of the same gender (5).

It is interesting that even Pilate perceived this - ‘he realised that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.’  (6)  The religious were jealous of the common people - that this new religious leader included people other than themselves in his oikumene - and declared that this was the true religion, that this was God’s way and God’s intention, and that they had to put aside all pretensions of superiority and do likewise.

They were jealous, scandalised, enough to engineer Jesus’ death.

God desires mercy - but for heaven's sake why?   God is already merciful.   We don't have to remind God to be merciful, tell God to be merciful, or beg God to be merciful - either towards ourselves or others.   When I read some of the old prayers of the Church, I think that this is what the ancient liturgists believed.   However I suppose that they lived a much less secure existence than we.

Of course, usually we implore God to be merciful to us but to not be merciful towards others; or we implore God to be merciful to us and neglect the fact that we continue to be merciless towards others.    I suspect even begging for mercy in these circumstances will be of no avail.   And I mean here that our "Christian" faith has been taken to implicitly imply that those of other faiths and those of little or no faith are "damned" unless they become "Christians" like us.   In the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly’ (7)   "Lack of mercy" dressed in the guise of "orthodoxy" is no less merciless.   God desires us to be merciful not orthodox.

Again when we plead for mercy, are we suggesting that we are more merciful than God?   The third of the collects for Good Friday read: ‘Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites ..’ (8)  This is real blasphemy! 

God does not want sacrifice - so we don't have to "give up" anything - and we don't reflect God's wishes when we demand of others that they give up things that we think are incompatible with "Christianity".   Neither bulls or goats, which at least seem possible.   But nor some of those things we expect others are able to give up, like their particular form of sexuality.   Do we demand celibacy of others if they are not able to live up to our view of what is "normal"?   Giving up sacrificing goats and bulls might be possible but is it possible for anyone to deny their human nature?   And anyway - is this a sacrifice demanded of them? - when the words are quite plain that God does not want sacrifices .. but mercy.

The reality is that Jesus reminds the Pharisees - the religious authorities - that they need to be merciful towards those who do not share their religious devotion or the intricacies of their faith.   So these words remind us that we, as the "religious" authorities, primarily need to be merciful towards those who have perhaps not been able to live up to our level of religious devotion and intricacies of our faith.   When I say God doesn't ask us to sacrifice anything, I should say that the message is that the only thing God does ask us to give up - is our lack of mercy towards others.

So the text "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" that Jesus draws to the attention of the Pharisees, is one of those eternal expressions of the nature of God.

St Paul exhorts us, when we show mercy, to do so with hilarity, and if it is good enough for us, it is good enough for God.   Of course God is merciful, hilariously so.  (9)

What would the world look like if we forgave others for calling on God by a different name than us, for worshipping God differently to us, for not forgoing their perceptions of truth and helping us preserve our temple and ministry, forgave them for expressing their intimate affections without our leave?    What would our church look like if we gave up proclaiming the good news as if everything depends on someone else giving sacrificially?   I suggest the world, and our church, might be an extraordinarily happier place - and it is up to .. us.

2.  Proverbs 23.27
3.  Proverbs 14.14
4.  Deuteronomy 14.10
5.  Leviticus 18.22
6.  Matthew 27.18
9.  Romans 12.8