Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mercy. Not Sacrifice.

Twice in the book of Matthew, I was reminded this morning, Jesus spoke to the religious elite of His day - the scribes and the Pharisees - and told them to find out what the Scriptures meant when they said, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." He was quoting the prophet Hosea - the prophet who married a prostitute to prove how deep God's love goes.

The religious ruling class were all about sacrifice. They were all about making people aware that they were sacrificing, what they were sacrificing (whether an animal or some sort of food or habit) and how often / how much they were doing it. They were all about upholding the letter of the law, and they were obsessive about the tiniest little thing in the application of that law - even to giving a tenth of the product of their herb and spice gardens to the temple.

They even thought of themselves as self-sacrificing. They put themselves out (and made sure everyone knew it) to obey the Law and the associated rules and regulations. They put written passages of scripture into little boxes and strapped the boxes to their head so that God's word would always "be on their minds."

They consistently considered themselves the guardians of their faith. If someone was out of line, they pounced and pronounced upon that person without mercy. They thought that by doing so, they were protecting the purity of their connection with God. They set themselves up as judge and jury, and marginalized the hurting and the needy, rather than taking pity on them and showing them mercy. Judgment was swift and always seen in black and white. They hid behind their robes, their prayer shawls, their tassels, and their phylacteries (those little boxes I mentioned) and they looked down their noses at those who were 'uneducated' and 'unenlightened.' They trusted in their rituals and their position rather than seeking any kind of relationship with the God they claimed to serve, rather than admitting their own need of Him.

Photo "Bible" provided courtesy of
Arvind Balaraman at
They were wrong.

Jesus called them "blind guides" and said that they swallowed camels whole ... but only strained out gnats (umm, at the other end. Quite the graphic picture!) 

Their blindness, Jesus told them, would persist because they insisted that they could see perfectly. They would not listen to the idea that they might be in error. Instead, they held fast to the way things had been done for generations, and they continued to dispense unyielding justice against all those who would dare to let their brokenness and their need of love and acceptance show. In a typical show of religious arrogance, one day they thrust a local prostitute down in front of Jesus, a woman that they had "caught in the very act of adultery," saying that the law demanded that she be stoned; what did He think? (What I find interesting was that they only quoted PART of the law; it said that BOTH parties were to be stoned. So where was the guy?? Perhaps he was getting his phylactery back on....) 

Jesus' response was telling. "Whichever one of you is without sin (the Greek says 'without this sin') may cast the first stone." 

Picture it. At least half a dozen men (and probably many more) gathered around this itinerant, dusty rabbi and a nearly naked woman, her eyelids swollen and red, her face streaked with tears and her hair undone and plastered to her cheeks ... and all Jesus would do was crouch down and write in the dust. Perhaps He was writing the names of their mistresses. Perhaps He was writing the words of Hosea, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice..." All I know is that they left, one by one, starting with the older ones. The only sound was the occasional thump as the rock each man held ... hit the ground. That, and the woman lying in the dust sobbing, her face in her hands, wordlessly crying out for someone - anyone - to not throw that first stone.

After the religious elite had "dropped their rocks and split" ... Jesus - the only person who could have cast the first stone - showed her mercy.

He didn't condone her sin.  But ... He didn't condemn her either. He forgave her totally: without reservation. He gave her a second chance.

That's mercy in action. 

That's Jesus.

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