At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? 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. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”( Matthew 12:1-8)
The older I grow, the more I realize how some things never really do change.
Today’s Gospel is a classic reminder of the call of Jesus – not sacrifice but mercy. It is particularly relevant in this decade.
Let’s review the context surrounding the words of this Gospel.
After the Babylonian Captivity the Jews realized — accurately — that the reason for their exile was because they had been unfaithful to God’s law, and in an excess of precaution began to become so obsessed about the little details of the law that they missed the forest for the trees.,
They determined in minutiae what would be the minimalist form of work and invented rules that many Jews began to take as seriously as the commandments.
Rather than the Sabbath being viewed as a gift of God giving us a chance to set the reset button in our relationship with him and others, rather than a day of love and freedom, it became a day of a more intense form of slavery. That’s one of the most important things that Jesus came to fix.
“It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.” This is not the first time he’s said those words. We remember that after Jesus called St. Matthew to conversion and the former tax collector threw a party for all of his fellow sinners to encounter Jesus, the Pharisees complained that Jesus was associating with sinners.
Jesus replied that he had come to call sinners, not the self-righteous, and that it is the sick who need a doctor not those who think they’re fine. Then he said, referring to the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn the meaning of the phrase, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.”
Mercy is so much more valuable than the sacrifice of animals, because God is merciful and wants us, in receiving his mercy, to share it. Jesus was stressing that his critics had no mercy whatsoever toward the “innocent men” who had become his followers.
In repeating that phrase today, Jesus shows just how central it is for what he teaches and enfleshes: everything God does in his relationship with us can be summarized as an expression of his merciful love, and he so wants to transform us that we can become merciful like he is merciful.
The issue of authenticity in our lives is central to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In the United States today, we witness a country deeply divided. Polemics are the rule rather than politeness. Truthfulness takes a back seat to tartness of speech. More often than not, distortions of the truth are used to make a point. Anger, spiteful speech, threats of violence, in one form or another are more prevalent. The sadness is that many people who claim to be followers of Christ do this every day.
How can angry speech, exclusion of others, families torn apart by politics, ever be justified by a Christian? Dress it up any way you want, it is not Christ like!
If any one of us bears malice in our hearts, Jesus reminds us that before we come together in Church to worship Him, we first go to the person whom we have banished from our hearts and mend that relationship.
I wonder how full our churches would be if that command from Christ were followed on any Sunday. I wonder how many ministers, priests and rabbis would be there to teach the word of God if that command were followed on any Sunday.
Jesus is calling us to something that no law can demand. He is calling us to live our lives with hearts filled with justice, mercy, love and authenticity.
Prayer of The Day
Lord, make us to walk in your way: Where there is love and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance; where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor annoyance; where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice; where there is peace and contemplation, there is neither care nor restlessness; where there is the fear of God to guard the dwelling, there no enemy can enter; where there is mercy and prudence, there is neither excess nor harshness; this we know through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Prayer of Francis of Assisi, 1182-1226)
You and I are challenged by the words of Jesus. We cannot be content merely to follow minimal requirements. We might be able to say, “You know, I never killed anyone.” But do we bear anger in our heart against people who are different or who disagree with us or who have hurt us? Jesus is asking us to let that anger go. We might be able to say, “I never committed adultery.” But what is our commitment to our marriage? Do we try to understand our spouse? Do we compromise? Are we willing to seek counseling when communication breaks down? These are the deeper values to which Jesus calls us. We might be able to say, “I never bore false witness against anyone.” But do we speak out when someone’s character is demeaned in our presence? Do we remain silent when a family member or friend makes a decision that is disastrous to him or herself or to others?