Mercy, not sacrifice (June 2002)

June 2002

Mercy, not sacrifice ©

Among the many accountabilities we appear to have as a mandate from heaven is one that we seldom recall, regarding mercy.

In the gospel of Matthew, the disciple relates the story of his own call to follow Jesus. He also tells us about the ridicule and contempt he and others received at the hands of “the faithful” of their day. He says that they were challenged about, among other things, the propriety of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.

The disciple answers in a manner that is both reasonable and compelling: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.

But it is the clincher that is so very significant: Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. With these words, he recalls the words of the prophet Hosea: For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.

Sometimes I feel that admonitions, such as this one related to mercy, are addressed directly to me. Sometimes I fear that in my complacency about what I perceive to be faith-filled living, I have become a new Pharisee. Sometimes I have a sense that I have confounded religion with faith.

Religion demands many things of us. It prescribes certain behaviours and proscribes others. It teaches us divinely inspired, humanly articulated rituals and laws. But, unfortunately, it also opens the door for judging books by their cover …to rail on about the speck in the other person’s eye, while ignoring the log in our own.

As necessary as religion is for the collective expression of faith, it too often serves to confuse the destination with the journey, and to cloud the road with a variety of principles and practices that distract us from the clear call to that which makes Christianity unique among the great religions of the world, namely mercy.

This call is indeed clear. Jesus says it in various ways: Forgive seven times seventy …Love your enemies …Forgive them for they know not what they do.

To be sure, he gives us one commandment that stands above all others: You shall love the Lord your God …and your neighbour as yourself. It is important to note that this is one sentence, one indivisible idea.

Moreover, Jesus takes the time to explain who this neighbour is. It is everyone …those we easily love, as well as those we have been taught to hate. To illustrate this point, he tells the familiar story of the good Samaritan.

Modern-day Samaritans come in many sizes, shapes and colours …as do modern Pharisees.

Those we have learned to marginalize, despite our professed faith in the word of God and the Gospel on which it is founded, are set apart because they have violated our taboos insofar as narrowly defined human or divine conventions are concerned. – the tax collector is the symbol of the first and the sinner, of the second.

We have learned to shun them because it makes us feel either better or safer to do so.

Psychologists will tell you that we hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves. It is easier to exorcise those parts of ourselves that are unhealed by transferring them onto other …labelling them and ostracizing them.

And to make ourselves feel even better and safer, we tend to make a crystal calf of our false self, and to offer sacrifices to maintain its fragile integrity.

Yet God, in his infinite mercy does not condemn us for this, although we might deserve condemnation. Rather he offers us the very life of his son who conquered human fear of the demons that assail us. The lesson taught by his son, through his deeds and through his words, is both simple and grand: Mercy is the door to infinite love.

To offer and receive mercy is the greatest act of making love, for it requires spiritual poverty and availability …vulnerability and authenticity. To forgive is the divine grace to give beyond human limitations because its source is the son who loved when we would have hated, and who – in so doing – was ultimately freed from all human limitations by his Resurrection.

Jesus, the head of the body of which we are the divinely created parts, was raised on a cloud of mercy so that we too might know what it means to have an epiphany of love …to suddenly stumble upon the magnificent garden of love by walking though the hidden gate of forgiveness.

Jesus suffered through the sacrament of letting go of that which we fearfully cling to so that we could come to experience true freedom, which we call redemption.

We have heard it said that to err is human and to forgive is divine. We might even say that to offer ritual sacrifices is human while to offer forgiveness is divine.

It is safer to make sacrifices by following a set of familiar rules with others of like-mind and nature than it is to express real love to those who hold a mirror to our flawed selves. Yet it might be argued that this is the only sacrifice that has the power to save …because it is the key to spiritual maturity in Christ.

Forgiving those we fear is learning to love the person that God loves, and to enjoy the freedom of walking with the light of Truth through the darkness of our fear-ridden world. Truth does not fear the darkness and, therefore, does not hate it. To the contrary, Truth loves the life hidden within it and rescues it in an embrace of peace and joy.

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The challenge of expressing love as mercy and forgiveness brings to mind a Franciscan conference I attended a few years ago in Toronto. I still recall how it shook the very foundation of my faith.

The speaker, Len Desroches, who has published a book entitled Allow the Water, gently drew us out of our comfort zone into the sometimes-frightening freedom in which Jesus operated.

As though he was illustrating the words of the prophet Hosea, Len offered five workshops, each offering fresh insights from the life of St. Francis of Assisi into the breadth and depth of the love of the New Covenant.

In this context, “holocaust” can be seen both as our brutal treatment of the things and people that we fear as well as the clinging to temple rituals to which we sometimes confine our discipleship.

The first, Power and Conversion: What had previously nauseated me…, drew on what may be the most fundamental ingredient of Franciscan spirituality …the constant and progressive need for conversion. For Francis, the most significant milestone of that journey was to face fear directly. Coming down off his horse to embrace a leper, with all the revulsion that this gesture represented, turned out to be a very liberating experience. This act was practical evidence of the transformation for which the Paschal Mystery (death and Resurrection) is an eternal metaphor.

In his book, Len asks: “Who is my leper? …a parent, a sibling, a gay or lesbian person, a homeless person or AIDS victim.” He might have added all manner of social outcasts: prisoners, substance abusers, or anyone who dresses, speaks or behaves in ways that unsettle us.

The second talk, Power and Community: Go find Clare and ask her…, encouraged us to love as relational and grace as something that most often flow through human instruments, requiring discernment and respect. To be effective, this call to community must be founded in humility and love and not experienced in resentment as an obligation.

Len wrote: “Most of all, we must want to live together. We need to help each other discover how to want to live together. Beyond tolerance, how can I discover you as sister, brother? It is possibly our greatest task”.

The third theme, Fear and Anger: God wanted me to be a fool…, explained that responding to hatred with love is both counterintuitive and fruitful while responding to hatred with hatred is both intuitive and fruitless.

The fourth, Love of Earth: Sister Water…, pointed to the cathartic experience of being reconciled to creation instead of trying to dominate and exploit it as though it truly belonged to us.

The final conference, Love of Enemy: This would be perfect joy…, was perhaps the most difficult of all. At a romantic or conceptual level, it is full of truth and light, but at a human level, it is leprosy, fear and anger all wrapped in a carapace of self-righteous indignation and held at a safe distance by misguided notions of justice.

Len has devoted his life to prophetic action, having been threatened, arrested and jailed for promoting truth-telling, social protest, and sometimes civil disobedience in the face of homelessness, militarism and other issues that remind us of our deafness, or selective attention, to the words of Jesus.

It is clear that God prefers love above the holocausts of safe ritualized behaviour. It is also clear that genuine love is itself a form of holocaust. It begins with a call, continues into the anguish of Gethsemane, then to the agony of Golgotha before proceeding to the perfect joy of the Resurrection. It yields peace and joy, but not without recalling the invitation of Jesus: Take up your cross and follow me.