Mercy, Not Sacrifice

One of the great gifts of the Protestant Reformation was the re-discovery of something called “justification by faith.” It has to do with how we “get saved,” how we come into a saving relationship with God, how we receive the assurance of eternal life.

 It’s actually better named “justification by grace through faith” and it was certainly not new with Martin Luther or the Protestants, but hearkens back to the pages of the New Testament, specifically to St. Paul who was the great “apostle of grace.”

I would say it even goes back beyond Paul at least to Jesus who demonstrates how it works in Matthew 9:9-13. That really was Jesus’ way. He was not a systematic theologian like Paul could be at his best. Jesus was a story teller and an activist. He demonstrated in his life what God was like rather than writing books about it!

He does two things in this Gospel passage: First, he calls Matthew the tax collector to be his friend and follower: Matthew, the traitor…Matthew, the man who had sold out to the occupying power, gone to work for them, and collected exorbitant taxes on their behalf, no doubt lining his own pockets with part of the proceeds.

Secondly, Jesus sat at table with Matthew’s cronies, more tax collectors and other sinners whose transgressions are not identified. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the disciples were asked. Not waiting for them to answer that for him, Jesus interrupts: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…I desire mercy, not sacrifice…I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”  

Notice, that in neither case did Jesus ask his friends to clean up their act before associating with them. He didn’t tell Matthew, “Say you’re sorry for betraying your people. Give them back what you stole. And promise never to do it again!” Now, maybe it’s implicit in Matthew’s willingness to follow Jesus that he will forsake his former way of life, but that is not named as a pre-condition.

Same with the other tax collectors and sinners. Apparently Jesus didn’t say, “Reform your lives and then I’ll break bread with you.” He shared their table first and only then, we assume, invited them to change. That, it seems to me, is the difference between “works righteousness” and justification by grace.

Works righteousness is “being good in order to be saved”. Justification by grace is “being good in thanksgiving for the fact that you have already been saved!” What difference does it make?

Only this: you can never work hard enough or be good enough to earn salvation. You’ll always be striving and straining, but never get there. But when you realize that you have been given God’s love and salvation as a gift, you can quite literally breathe a sign of relief – and, in thanksgiving, begin a lifelong journey of living a life which will please the One who loves you! The One who desires mercy…not sacrifice!  

3 Responses to “Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    all very good! the only part I would quibble with is the idea that Martin Luther discovered or re-discovered anything. one thing I have learned in my study of medieval philosophy and theology is that the Lutheran presentation of late medieval theology was essentially a fabrication. there was never a preachment of works righteousness from the theologians of the Catholic Church, not even the doctrine of indulgences can properly get that label!

    i have become fond of the Calvinist/Barthian reading of the sacrifice part, tho–that God does require sacrifice, but is himself both victim and priest. thus the sacrifice is itself mercy, and God requires, in a certain sense, neither from us, having provided a lamb for himself (thinking of the connection to Genesis 22).

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Right, as I say, a high doctrine of grace certainly goes back to Paul, to Jesus, even to the Hebrew Bible in places…

    I like the “priest and victim” concept of God’s self-offering for us.

  3. rwkachur Says:

    Amen. We are always looking for ways to justify ourselves and it is hard to accept that it is freely given.

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