Common sense, mercy and sacrifice

By Keith Walton
27 Jun 2008

Much religion is dripping in sacrificial language. The appeasement of the gods is a common theme in many traditions. What happens in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is, say Rene Girard and others, quite surprising. Love that does justice becomes the core of a new perspective, based on a different understanding of who God is.

The matter is well illustrated by the lectionary texts used in many churches for the third Sunday after Trinity (Hosea 5.15-6.6; Psalm 50. 7-15 and Matthew 9. 9-13, 18-26). These readings show us common sense at work from both God’s and a human perspective, and the contrast between the two. (The problem with common sense, as we are often told, is that it is not very common.)

In the Psalm we are invited to reconsider God’s perspective: “I don’t actually eat the doves, sheep, goats or bulls that you sacrifice. I don’t need food like that and if l did l could choose what l wanted.” Divine common sense says that offering a sacrifice of an animal makes no impact.

From a human perspective, common sense says that if you are an up and coming would-be national religious leader you don’t compromise your chances by associating and eating publicly with people who are regarded at best as morally dubious and at worst as collaborators with the enemy.

Then again, turning to the Gospel, common sense says that touching someone’s clothing will not heal you from any illness, of the body or mind. Common sense says that if the doctors have told you someone has just died, then they have, and nothing can turn the clock back.

Jesus turns limited human common sense upside down. The synagogue leader’s daughter is restored to life, the woman who touches him is healed, and the nay-sayers about Jesus’ companions are referred to the prophet Hosea’s words – that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

Jesus and Hosea are saying what we has already been seen in the Psalm: God does not require sacrifice. But humans have a habit of turning God’s common sense upside down. We prefer to offer sacrifices rather than show mercy. This is still true today, even if we don’t bring goats to slaughter as part of a church service.

How? “Call on me in the day of trouble” says the Psalm. We don’t call or ask, instead we sell or justify. Homeless and need money? - sell Big Issue: much better than begging. Our church needs repairing: we produce brochures explaining how we shall use the money to add value to our church and the community. In return for your giving we offer a ‘sacrifice’ – of goods, services, promises. Receiving is reciprocal – we must offer you something in return. We desire to offer a sacrifice rather than simply receive your mercy.

It works the same way too when we are the givers rather than receivers. Aid is given with strings attached. Change your policies, change your life style, and report to us on how the resources have been spent. We don’t want to show mercy: we want something in return, we want a sacrifice.

It is perhaps small wonder that we can easily re-construe the life, work and purpose of Jesus in terms of sacrifice. In the New Testament, Christ’s death is communicated as the end to sacrifice, and the difference between genuinely self-sacrificial love and human plea-bargaining is emphasised. Yet the church has often presented the Cross as if it were simply another version of the old, surpassed sacrificial system writ large.

We need to return to Jesus’ riposte to some of the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” Then we need to seek to live like this, difficult and challenging though it is.

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(c) Keith Walton is a self-employed management trainer and assessor. He is a reader in the Church of England and a member of St Stephen's Church in the Parish of Central Exeter. This article is adapted from reflections used in ‘Meeting Point’, a lay-led informal act of worship.

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