15th Week OT(F): Exodus 11.10-12.14 and Matthew 12.1-8
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
If the Devil can quote the Bible as a means for his ends, then we can be properly warned, without fear of impiety, “Be careful: read scripture and be tempted!” That we even think that reading the Bible might tempt us to disobedience seems not just odd but downright freaky, if not plainly blasphemous. But we all know that the thrill of the Word, the rush of the unveiling will strike a passionate note and quickly, swiftly swirl us away, dropping us carelessly at the foot of the first fool thought that floats too close to escape our curious eye. And we can start believing utter nonsense as if it were wholesome logic in a breath and two heartbeats. Jesus, always the clarion cure for foolishness, says to the Pharisees who have accused his disciples of impious labor on the Sabbath, “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocent men.”
Ah ha! Jesus is admonishing the Pharisees for following the rules; he’s berating them for being concerned about the Law, about procedure and process; therefore, we, as followers of the Way of Christ, are under no obligation to follow the Law or any law, and all of those puritanical restrictions against our favorite, former sins are now abrogated! We are free indeed! God desires mercy from us, not our empty, choreographed sacrifices inside an over decorated, incense-choked building! Thanks be to God we are free. . .!
As I said, in a breath and two heartbeats utter nonsense starts to sound like wholesome logic. This is our temptation here: to take what is a profoundly subtle ethical teaching from Christ, ignore the subtleties in favor of what we want to hear, and make Christ’s teaching into an excuse for sin. The Devil’s means for the Devil’s ends indeed. Where do we go wrong with this teaching? We go wrong with this teaching when we place mercy and sacrifice against one another, in conflict with one another, and we come out believing that we are to do one and not the other. The truth that Jesus is trying to push into the legalistic brains of the Pharisees is that showing mercy to a sinner is a sacrifice; to be merciful is sacrificial.
The logic of mercy requires you to forgive an offense against you w/o asking for what you are justly owed in compensation for the offense. You “sacrifice” what is rightfully yours in exchange for nothing, for nothing at all. In effect, there never was any offense. We can say that this or that bad act was committed—Jesus doesn’t deny that his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath—but once sacrificial mercy is shown to the actors, we cannot say that any offense was given by the act. Jesus calls David and the priests and his disciples “innocent men.” No offense, no sin.
Divine mercy then is that kind of love that sees clearly into the heart of the sinner and rightly discerns what drives him to offend. However, only God has such clarity, the clarity to know perfectly a heart’s intent; you and I are called to a far more difficult task: to show mercy as a sacrificial habit; as a virtue faithfully, daily practiced without the benefit of a divine mind to see inside another person’s motive!