I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Today is St. Matthew Day. We celebrate the days of saints not to lift them up but to learn from them. We can learn a lot from Matthew. Mark and Luke also record the call of Matthew into the ministry, but only Matthew preserves Jesus telling the Pharisees, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" And only Matthew tells us later that Jesus called the Pharisees down for not doing it. The Spirit inspired Matthew to regard these words as important. Shouldn't they be important to us?
These words, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," condemn all who think they're good enough. These condemn those who think God looks across humanity and sees them as shining lights. The people over there who sin sexually are the ones who really need God's mercy. Not us in Church, not us Christians, not us good people, but other people. Do you need God's mercy or do you think it's for others? Are you like the Pharisees in the text who looked at others and declared them to be the "sinners"?
When you chant the Kyrie, "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy," do you even know what you are saying? Isn't it a big deal to you that even after having confessed and been forgiven for your sins, you still plead for the Lord's mercy? And doesn't it register with you that even that isn't enough mercy? We go on in the Gloria in Excelsis to beg the Lamb of God to "have mercy upon us" not once but twice. In the Agnus Dei twice more we ask for the Lamb of God to "have mercy upon us." And finally in the first post-Communion Collect we pray God "that of Thy mercy Thou would strengthen us" in faith and love.
Do you mean what you pray or are you a hypocrite? If you think you're good enough, if you think you don't need God's mercy, then you're a hypocrite every time you ask for it. But maybe it's not that you think you're good enough, you just think you do enough, give enough, sacrifice enough to make up for your sins. You don't need God's mercy because you have His favor based on how much you give, how much you do, how much you love. Anything you give to God, sacrifice for God, offer to God from such a faith as this, stinks to high heaven. God condemned this sort of faith in Malachi. God tells them to just shut the doors of the temple rather than come before Him with gifts they think can satisfy His wrath. He says He regards such gifts, such sacrifices, such works as nothing but vomit.
The words Matthew records for us, "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice'" are condemning words if you don't think you need mercy, but they are comforting words if you know you do. If you know you're not good enough, if you know that even when you're doing your best, you're still sinning, if you know that even your best works are nothing but filthy rags before God, as Isaiah says, then these words comfort you. To the person who knows they can't stand before God's justice, to the person who knows they can't stand under the scrutiny of God's Law, God desiring to have mercy is music, food, and comfort to them.
Likewise, God's mercy is consolation to the person who knows he can't ever give enough, do enough, sacrifice enough to offset his sins. The prophet Micah examines the problem of his works not being able to offset his sins. He says, "With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in 10,000 rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" In the end what does Micah say the answer is? "To love mercy."
You love mercy if you can find nothing about yourself that is good enough in the eyes of God. You love mercy if you know that as often as you try to please God you fail. You love mercy if no one else's sins look as big as your own. You love mercy if the news that God wishes to be merciful makes your heart leap. You love mercy if you have nothing to plead before God, not works, not excuses, not promises to do better, but, "Lord have mercy."
"I desire mercy, not sacrifice," are condemning words to sinners who don't think they need mercy, comforting words to sinners who know they do, and radical words to the person who really listens. Almighty God says that He would rather give mercy to sinners than get anything from them. This flies in the face of human reason which says humanity is suppose to serve deity. This flies in the face of idolatry which says gods need their worshipers to do things for them. This flies in the face of the rock hard bottom of our heart that styles our relationship with God as one big "have to." Do I "have to" go to Church? Do I "have to" take Communion? Do I "have to" give an offering? Do I "have to" pray? On and on our fallen hearts whine, foolishly thinking that God wants to get from us more than He wants to give to us.
But there's something even more radical here. When God declared through the prophet Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," He created a big dilemma for Himself. He uttered a Word of promise, a word that could not be broken that conflicted with another Word of His that also could not be broken: The soul that sins dies. This is really being caught between a rock and hard place. If either Word from God was broken, it would mean God lied. If God should be found to be lying, He would no longer be God. That would be like finding God no longer to be eternal or immortal. God is truth; no lie can ever be found with Him.
So what is God to do? How does He keep His promise to be merciful to sinners while at the same time keeping His promise to punish sinners? To be merciful to sinners, God sacrificed His only beloved Son. Your sins had to be punished both the ones you think huge and embarrassing and the ones you think small and insignificant. God couldn't just turn a blind eye toward them; in order to keep His promise that sins and sinners would be punished, God took all your sins off you and placed them on His Son. Thus He made His Son to be sin, the biggest sinner of all time, and He made you righteous and holy. With your sins placed firmly on Christ, they can't be on you too. Without your sins you stand before God holy and righteous.
See how God kept both words, His promise to punish and His promise to have mercy? His word to punish sinners He kept on the cross where He abandoned His holy, beloved Son to the punishment that damned sinners deserve. On this same cross, God kept His promise to have mercy on sinners. All the waves of God's wrath, all the punishments, all the tortures, all the suffering, crying, bleeding and dying that you deserve fell on Jesus. None of that falls on you. What falls on you from the cross drop by precious drop is the blood of Jesus which cleanses you of all sins.
God does not, God cannot count what has been washed away. Though the devil does, others may, and you might even count your sins against yourself, God does not. He counted them all against Christ Jesus already, so He has no desire to count your sins against you but rather to have mercy on you.
These words, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," are condemning words, comforting words, radical words, and calling words. And look who the call comes from. The speaker in Hosea who says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" is none other than Jehovah, but right after quoting that call Jesus goes on to say, "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." The One who calls standing before them in flesh and blood is none other than Jehovah who first said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." The God who met with Abraham in a smoking Pot, with Jacob in a wrestling Angel, with Moses in a Cloud, and with Elijah in a still small Voice. Says, He's here in flesh and blood calling!
Jehovah calls in the waters of Baptism which are applied to flesh and blood; Jehovah calls into flesh and blood ears by means of a flesh and blood man; Jehovah calls by bringing His flesh and blood to feed flesh and blood in His Supper. But is He calling you? Well He calls sinners not righteous people. People who know they need mercy not ones who want justice. People who are sick with sins not healthy with holiness.
And to what does Jehovah in flesh and blood call sinners? To sins? No, we have plenty of sins already, don't we? Jehovah, our Jesus, doesn't call us sin sick sinners to be comfortable with our sickness but to loath our sins even as we do a sickness. Do sick people go to a doctor with the intent of remaining in their sickness? Do sinful people go to Jesus with the intent of remaining in their sins? The person who goes to Jesus with the intent of remaining in their sins is not looking for mercy but license. This Jesus will not give. Think of the thief before the king begging for mercy. Is he begging the king to tolerate, to accept, to get over his stealing? Not hardly.
Jehovah doesn't call you today to sins, you have those already. What He calls sinners to is righteousness, not your own but His. The answer to your sins isn't to stop sinning, to try harder, or to make excuses for them. The only answer to your sins is the righteousness of Jesus. It is holy and pure before God. God can find no stain, no blot, no fault with the righteousness of Jesus, nor with you when you're clothed in it by Baptism, covered with it by Absolution, fed with it by Communion. Such righteousness as you now have changes sinners. How much? It changed a tax collector into an evangelist, a sinner into an apostle. The great mercy God showed Matthew in Christ led to great changes, sacrifice even, but God desired to be merciful to Matthew more than He desired him to be an apostle or evangelist. Once Matthew learned that, the great changes followed. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist (9-21-03), Matthew 9:9-13