St Matthew - Mercy not Sacrifice

A sermon preached at St George's by Clare Heard, 21 September 2014

A twenty-one-year-old music college student took the cheapest ship she could find, calling at the greatest number of countries, and prayed to know where to disembark. She arrived in Hong Kong in 1966 when the cultural revolution was beginning in China and a flood of refugees were about to burst across the border. More and more people crammed into a place called the Walled City. It was a small, densely populated, lawless area controlled neither by China nor Hong Kong. It was a high-rise slum for drug addicts, gangs and prostitutes.

Jackie Pullinger has spent nearly half a century working with prostitutes, heroin addicts and gang members. She gave a talk some years ago and began by saying, ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’

God wants us to have soft hearts – hearts of love and compassion. But if we are to make any difference to the world, this will lead to hard feet as we travel along tough paths and face challenges.
Today is St Matthew’s feast day and the gospel reading tells us about the calling of Matthew to be an apostle.

This passage is included within verses which are predominantly about miracles and healing (the healing of the paralytic, the healing of the haemorrhaging woman and the raising of the daughter who had died), and in a sense, Matthew’s calling, from being a tax collector, to an apostle, is a kind of miracle and is certainly an act of healing.

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, but immediately then goes to sit and eat with sinners. He is constantly going to the unclean, the social outcasts, and he calls Matthew to do the same – to follow him, to turn his heart and mind towards his heavenly father, but to keep his feet treading the tough paths with the tax collectors and sinners. Matthew is called to have a soft heart and hard feet.
In this passage, Jesus embodies his own teaching when he challenges the Pharisees to go and learn what this means “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.

There is so much in these few words. They quote directly from Hosea 6.6

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

And there is much in the Old Testament with a similar message, take 1 Samuel 15.22

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

And there are many other instances of God turning down “empty sacrifices” such as Amos 5:21-24.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
      I will not accept them.
But let justice roll on like a river,
      righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Strong words, and the point is clear – what God wants from us is a loving and merciful heart, not simply strict adherence to the law and empty ritual.

And although I think this is a well known teaching, it is still a message we need to hear again and again….because all of us have a habit of putting ritual, or the law (Bible), before love and compassion for our neighbours. And when we do this, our hearts start to harden and our feet to soften.

We see this throughout all traditions within the church in differing ways. We are all susceptible to getting hung up on tradition, particular verses in the Bible, certain ways of doing things, sticking to the rules. Nobody likes change!

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying the Bible or tradition are bad things…. both are able to point us to Jesus and his Father and can be a source of both understanding and grace. This is not about those things being bad, rather it is about mercy and love for others taking precedent.

When David breaks the law in the Old Testament by eating food that had been consecrated (1 Samuel 21), he was not condemned for it, but it doesn’t mean that the law was not valid, simply that circumstances called for a breaking of the usual rules.

Many of us will have experienced a challenge to our beliefs about right and wrong when faced with a person in deep suffering. Issues like divorce, euthanasia and abortion are obvious examples of situations where it is not easy to know what the right choice is when all the circumstances are understood.

So this passage is not about turning our backs on what we believe to be right, or on the traditions of the church. Rather it is about showing mercy in our relationships with others. Giving a little, not forcing our own opinions onto other people who may, for a whole variety of reasons, not be in a place to hear or accept what we have to say.

Ultimately we worship God, and to worship, is to imitate – we are called to grow in the likeness of Christ - to imitate him. 

Christ does not come to abolish the law, he says himself, he has come to uphold it, yet he is constantly showing love and mercy to all those who break it. He is bringing love and compassion rather than simply a set of rules.

So where does sacrifice fit into this – clearly, in the Old Testament understanding, sacrifice in itself was part of God’s law and part of the process of reconciliation between God and his people. Jesus sacrifice on the cross, if anything confirms this.

Today we struggle to understand the concept of sacrifice as it was understood in the Old Testament, and there is a real danger it can lead to the view of God as angry – demanding blood for all sins.
I do not want to get into all the theories of atonement at this point in the sermon, but I would say that sacrifice takes sin and justice seriously, which for anyone who has been sinned against, is very important.

Most importantly, Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice, and we believe, as James said last week, that this is the instrument of our salvation. Sacrifice cannot be ignored.

So if we are to imitate Jesus, that means that a certain amount of sacrifice is needed on our part.
But what does sacrifice mean in today’s world? It is certainly not about killing animals, but often, a kind of death is involved.

Perhaps the death of our own desires and ambitions, of our greed and selfishness, in order that we may worship, or imitate Christ more fully.

What does sacrifice look like in our dealings with others – it does not mean always giving way to their opinions and desires, but it may mean letting go of some of ours. As the Epistle today says,
”we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

And in all this, we should seek Wisdom, as Proverbs reminds us. Clearly a great deal of wisdom is required to work out when we should stick to our guns, and when we should back down.

Some issues do require standing up for, we are told to fight for justice for the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan (as both the Samuel and Amos passages above demanded). There are some cases where we should under no circumstances sacrifice our beliefs or ideals.

But if in doubt, I think we should always remember Jesus saying – I desire mercy, and where there is an opportunity to be merciful to others, we should take it.

We are not ever condoning sin, but we are called to be merciful and loving to all sinners (and that includes every one of us), just as Jesus was.

If as a church we really manage to do this, then we will draw people in. Just as Jesus went out to Matthew and called to him, just as he sat and ate with sinners, showing mercy and love to others may allow them to experience the love of God.

And then, God may call them, as he has called each of us, as he called Matthew, to become one of his children, and to go out and show mercy to others, just as Christ has taught us - to have soft hearts and hard feet.
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