Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory
Like the sniping political operatives that they are, the Pharisees attack Jesus and his merry band for violating the Sabbath Law. Their crime? Some of the disciples absentmindedly pick grains of wheat and snack on them during a lesson. When the Pharisees pounce, Jesus—ever the scholar of Jewish history and the scriptures—remind them that David and his friends went into the temple and ate the bread of offering. Then he lowers the boom: “If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocent men.” This is a triple accusation. The Pharisees do not know their own history. They do not understand mercy or sacrifice. And they have condemned innocent men. Of course, their most egregious error is their failure to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. Had they done so, they would have known that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, thus making their condemnation of the disciples into a chance to show mercy. So, what does this scene tell us about the relationship btw mercy and sacrifice?
We might be inclined to conclude that the two are opposed. Jesus says that he prefers one to the other, therefore, we can either show mercy or offer sacrifice. The Law requires sacrifice, while Christ requires mercy. The two are incompatible. But this can't be right since Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. In the City of God, Augustine clears it all up for us. When Jesus quotes Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Augustine writes, “. . .nothing else is meant than that one sacrifice is preferred to another. . .mercy is the true sacrifice. . .All the divine ordinances. . . concerning the sacrifices in the service of the tabernacle or the temple, we are to refer to the love of God and our neighbor” (X.5). In other words, every act of mercy is a sacrifice, an embodiment of the love God has for us and a demonstration that we love Him in turn. To set aside judgment and condemnation in favor of mercy is the sacrifice God desires from us.
What might be confusing here is that we seem to be using the term “sacrifice” in two different senses. When Jesus says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he uses “sacrifice” to mean “the ritualistic slaughter of an animal in the temple by a priest according to the Law.” This is not the sort of sacrifice the Lord desires. Augustine gives the term “sacrifice” its contemporary meaning in the context of Christ's fulfillment of the ritual Law of animal slaughter. That is, he goes to the root of the word and discovers that sacrifice is what we do when we love the sinner and show him/her mercy. For Augustine, following Christ, without love, the sacrificing priest is just a butcher and his sacrifice is just killing. What makes “showing mercy” a sacrifice is our giving up on the prideful need to sit in the Lord's place as judge and executioner of His justice. When we show mercy to a sinner, we first acknowledge our own sinfulness and confess the need to be forgiven. None of this means that we're to be “soft on sin” or make a habit of excusing disobedience! It means just the opposite. Only a sinner needs mercy. Only a sinner can be called to repentance.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are in the presence of something greater than the temple, something more fundamental, more vital than the Law. They are in the presence of Love Himself, mercy-made-flesh. Had they acknowledged this truth, their desire for sacrifice would have turned to pleas for mercy. And their accusations to songs of praise.
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