St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Go and Learn What This Means”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
The heart of the thing. That is what Jesus is about. It is not about what we do. It is about how we do it. It is about why we do it. We can speak with the words of the smartest people and or sing with the voice of an angel, but if it is not done in love, it is a banging gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13:1 paraphrased) It is about how and why, not what.
The passage here is about the Calling of Matthew, a tax collector. You may already know that his profession was a surprise for the Righteous (actually self-righteous), because tax collectors were agents with self-serving practices of the despised Roman overlords. And once called, Matthew threw a party for his new Master and his old friends. How scandalous!
Those who considered themselves righteous used this to take aim at Jesus and his apparent hypocrisy. As I was preparing for today, I was caught by Jesus’ turn of phrase in retort: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
And so I did. I pulled out the Greek and decided I would dig and see if there is something lying beneath the surface. The words Mercy and Sacrifice are used almost thirty times each (27 and 29 specifically) so they are not rare. Eleos means “mercy, pity, compassion.” and Thysian means “sacrifice,” noun, not verb. So a blood sacrifice. Or a burnt offering. Mercy, not sacrifice. Wow. As scandalous, and amazing, today as it was then. But wait, there is more. Jesus is quoting here!
Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, and making sure that things are translated well, I did the same deep dive into the Hebrew that led to the Greek we have in the New Testament. This is where is gets fascinating. The word we translate as mercy is one of my favorites in the Hebrew scriptures. Hesed is the word used to describe how God relates to us! Sometimes it is described as Mercy. Sometimes it is Covenant Fidelity. True to the promises made to loves us forever. That is Mercy, but so much more. We are called to be like God, merciful, which is so much more than doing our religious rites “just right.” The word Zebah also means sacrifice, a noun, either a burnt offering or a blood sacrifice so that is the same.
This year as we look at the leading and the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our Church, we will need to pick up and examine these treasure hidden in plain sight. I have heard this phrase all my life, but now I see it so differently. A word can be so much more if we take the time to “Go and learn what this means…” When Jesus said that to the self-rightous, they would have known the reference. They would have known the implications he was saying. The way to keep covenant with God is not performing the rites and rituals, but to be like God in what we say and do. So Jesus is in effect saying that we should have bleeding hearts instead of giving bloody sacrifices. The nature of God, shown through the actions and teachings of Jesus, repeatedly shows us this. The Divinity seen in the Crucifixion is in the Passion, the love shown by Jesus, not in the vengeful blood offering demanded by an angry God. What we do is not the issue; it is the How, the Why.
Our devotions, our prayers, our offerings, are not done to get God’s attention or to make ourselves superior or more worthy, but we pray and we worship to get in on the mercy freely given. We drink deep from the stream of Grace. We are blessed to be a blessing. Mercy. Compassion. Hesed. Not offerings. Not sacrifices. And the most liberating part is that we get to “Go and Learn…” it is in the practice of it, in the eventual “turning, turning that we come round right…”Lead us Holy Spirit into the very Depths of God! Amen!