“I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Okay, Jesus. I’ll take you up on that. I’ll go to the prophet Hosea to learn this—after all, that’s where this quote comes from.

There’s ancient Israel awash in idolatry and injustice, yet trusting in her religious rituals—prescribed by God in the Law, no less!—to maintain her standing before God. But God would rather have his people living in simple chesed—“steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy”: devotion to God and compassion for others—than have them do all the prescribed rituals of the Law put together.

Okay, Jesus, I’m good with that. In fact, I’d love to be free from feeling obligated to do religion in just the right way. I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that’s free, you know? I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that focuses on the stuff that really matters, like “doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, I just… Oh, okay. I’ll go deeper. Let me check out the context of your teaching, why you said what you said when you said it.

Isaac Cigoli, The Sacrifice of Isaac

There you are, eating with sinners, and the Really Religious don’t like it. Their concern is about holiness, about maintaining purity—the prescribed “sacrifice” according to the Law. But your concern is about “mercy,” about showing compassion—this is the greater pursuit, God’s greater desire.

Of course, you don’t neglect the reality of sin—you call all sinners to repentance—but you turn “sin” on its head: excluding the marginalized, and especially justifying this by appeals to “holiness” before God, is the greater sin. Purity plus power so easily turns to bigotry and exclusion.

Okay, Jesus, that’s hard, but I think I can do that. I can try to be attentive to those on the fringes, especially those my community labels “sinners.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, didn’t I just…? Okay, okay, Jesus. I’ll go still further. After all, there is that other time you said these words.

Your disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath. You heal on the Sabbath. The Really Religious get on your case once again. This time, though, they’re putting the letter of the Law—strict Sabbath observance, that is, “sacrifice”—ahead of its spirit—“mercy.” As the Son of Man, The Human, you are Lord over the Sabbath Law. The Sabbath, you say, was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. And so you prioritize the Law’s spirit of mercy over its rigid observance.

Okay, Jesus, I’m pretty sure I can do this. It can be hard to discern the spirit of biblical teaching, harder still to discern the Spirit behind the biblical teaching. But when in doubt, choose mercy—that’s a good guideline right there.

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

There’s still more to this? I don’t doubt that anymore—you do seem to have a way of saying simple things that aren’t so simple once you start really thinking about them!

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What other “sacrifice” might you mean? More than just the Law-prescribed offerings, or the right religious rituals? More than just living by the letter of the Law?

Oh, yes. There’s you. You gave your own life as a sacrifice. But if you did this, what does it mean to say you—or God, for whom you speak—does not desire sacrifice?

Oh, I see. You mean, no sacrifice of anyone, anytime, in any way.

Your self-giving sacrifice was an end to all sacrifice—not just animal sacrifice, not just religious offerings, but all the ways in which we sacrifice a life to gain the favour of the gods or to create favourable circumstances for ourselves.

No sacrifice, then. No daughters and sons sacrificed in war for The Nation or The Wealthy Few. No condemned prisoners sacrificed eye-for-eye and life-for-life. No brown people sacrificed over there, or right here, to maintain “peace” or satisfy “justice” or fill our White Man’s craving for land and cotton and oil.

No sacrifice. No women suffering abuse while the church keeps silent, all to maintain the church’s (and men’s) reputation and power. No children murdered in school on the altar to the twin gods Gun and Mammon. No LGBTQ folks scapegoated so straight folks don’t have to deal with their own sin. No unborn children pulled from the womb so close to seeing the light of life, and no pregnant women cast out into the wilderness bearing the burden of responsibility for their child.

No sacrifice. No sacrifice, ever.

Only mercy. Only, and forever, mercy.