Mercy, Not Sacrifice

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

This morning we are going to explore what it means to be a sinner.  At first this may make some of us uncomfortable because talking about sin is often about judgment.  The word is used as a pejorative, it is often thrown at people who don’t live the way the speaker thinks they ought to.  It is sometimes used to knock people down, to threaten them with fire and brimstone.   It is never a word that we embrace with a wholesome smile.  “Yes, I am a sinner!”

​​However, to be a sinner is to be human. We all make mistakes. We all make decisions based on fear. Some of us tend towards hubris, the sin of pride, “I can do anything I set my mind to!”  and some of us tend toward the sin of self negation, “I’m worthless and nothing I do matters”.  None of us is always perfectly aligned with God, no matter how hard we try.  If we were, we would be God, or at least we would be Jesus!  And obviously, we are not.

Now to consider oneself righteous seems to be something we like, something we strive for.  And to be aligned with God, to be right with God, is of course our goal.  But once we put ourselves into the righteous camp we put ourselves apart from others. We start thinking “I’m glad I’m not like those people, those sinners!”  Self-righteousness denies one’s humanity (one’s sin) and affirms that one has no need of God.

I want you to hold these ideas in your head and in your heart as we look at today’s Scripture from the Gospel of Matthew.  This text comes right in the middle of a bunch of healing stories.  In chapters 8 and 9, there are 9 separate healing stories, one of which says that Jesus healed many others.  Today’s text is also a healing story. It is a story of mercy, not sacrifice.

This Spring, many of us have been watching The Chosen, a TV show about Jesus.  One of my favorite characters in the show is Matthew, the tax collector.  You will have to watch the show to understand why.  One thing the show makes clear is that the Call of Matthew is a challenge to the other disciples.  They don’t like him or trust him because he is a tax collector.  They are not sure how he fits in with the rest of the group.  But Jesus invites him just the same way as he invited the rest and he joins them in just the same way.  Jesus says “Follow Me” and Matthew does.

And then Jesus has Matthew invite all his tax collector friends to a meal together with Jesus and the rest of the disciples.  Think about the change in perspective needed by the disciples who had resented and feared tax collectors their whole lives.  They had to let go of their prejudices and widen their understanding, not only of who God loves, but of who are their brothers and sisters in faith, their compatriots in the community being created by Jesus.

It is an eye-opening and humbling realization that those they had judged to be sinners are now their family.

Those observing from outside do not understand.  The religious leaders ask the disciples “Why is he eating with those people?”  Doesn’t he understand who they are?”

Jesus first responds with a Greek proverb, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’  Yes of course, that makes perfect sense.  [Although who is well and who is sick becomes less clear as we think more about it!]  Then Jesus asks them to think about the meaning of a quote from the prophet Hosea. He says, ‘Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (9:13).

Commentator Greg Carey writes  “Jesus says the healthy do not need a physician while the sick do, that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners (9:13). Yet Jesus’ companionship with sinners appears to be just that, companionship and not treatment. Jesus has many harsh words to say in the First Gospel, but he directs none of them at sinners. His inaugural message is a call to repent (4:17), and he denounces the cities he has visited for failing to repent (11:20-21; 12:41). He pronounces woe against the scribes and the Pharisees (chapter 23). But in the First Gospel Jesus not once reproves sinners. He does not criticize them. He does not demand their repentance. He simply eats and drinks with them.  (Greg Carey,

Let’s think about this for a minute.  Jesus, not once, criticizes sinners! He does not threaten them with fire and brimstone. He does not throw them out of the Beloved Community.  He does not exclude them from anything.  In fact, he goes out of his way to welcome and include them.  To those who question him, he quotes God saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”   For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

This is a profound corrective to how many of us think of sin and righteousness.  Some of us were raised to believe that God’s love is only available to us through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  That we are such horrible sinners that we are rightly consigned to eternal torment and the only way to escape such a fate is to profess our belief in Jesus as our Savior who took our punishment on our behalf.  But Jesus himself tells us that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

There are people in our nation, Christians, who are sacrificing their own children, kicking them out of their homes and their lives, because of who they are and who they love.  There are those in our nation, Christians, who are willing to sacrifice our children in deference to their desire for unfettered access to guns.  There are those in our nation, Christians, who are willing to sacrifice women in need of reproductive healthcare.  There are those in our nation, Christians, who are willing to sacrifice the humanity of those seeking shelter at our borders. [Not bothering to recognize that the majority of those seeking help are Christians also.]   Whole swaths of our society are consumed with judgment and sacrifice, [not self-sacrifice but the sacrifice of others].  Their quest for righteousness steamrolls over the lives of those they consider sinners.  And they proclaim “Believe and behave exactly as we tell you, or God is going to get you!”

But Jesus tells us that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  We all are sinners and we all are beloved.  Jesus shows us the heart of God which is love and welcome, not wrath and judgment.   This is not cheap grace. It is hard to love and accept ourselves, warts and all.   It is hard work to love and work with others who have made big mistakes or who live profoundly different lives from that to which we are accustomed.    It is much easier to divide up into us and them, to smugly say “Jesus may love you, but I’m his favorite.”  and to imagine the downfall of all those outside our circle.  But this is not what Jesus teaches us.  This is not what God desires.

Jesus calls us as we are, imperfect, human, sinners.  Jesus calls us to follow Him, to welcome those cast out by others, to embrace the love and grace and power God freely gives to each of us.   And to recognise the great gifts of love and solidarity we can experience when we share a meal and share our lives with others beloved by God.

Let us pray, God of mercy, help us to let go of fear and judgment so that we might rest in your grace and power. Embolden us to speak of your love and welcome especially to those who have been judged in the past.  We ask this in Christ’s name.  Amen