Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday after Trinity 2023

‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

The Reverend Justin White Priest Vicar

Sunday, 11th June 2023 at 11.15 AM

Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

A former Canon of Westminster, and later wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, records that he was once approached on a train by what he called a ‘Bible-thumper’. “Brother, are you saved?” the man demanded of the Archbishop. His Grace, by God’s grace, replied without hesitation: “I was saved at Calvary, I am being saved in the life of the Church, I shall be saved in the Resurrection on the last day.”

He’s right, of course. Any notion that our salvation occurs at a moment in time, or as the consequence of an assent to some doctrinal confession or formula can’t be right. Our being saved is not a theory or a formula or a mantra. It is a liturgy; a liturgy that must be undergone by each of us as the work of a lifetime. 

I take it that the day-to-day navigating of the path to salvation is what we call Christian Ethics; the working out of what is good and what is evil. The possibility of an ethics which leads to salvation was won for us at Calvary, and guaranteed for us by the Resurrection on the last day, but its working out by us in the meantime is the life and work – what we call the liturgy – of the Church.

Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus quotes a line from the Hebrew Scriptures – from our first reading from Hosea, in fact. Jesus repeats it twice:

But go and learn what it means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ 

You want an instruction manual for Christian Ethics? That is it. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. 

Being good can never be done without the effort to learn, step by step, day by day, what it means to separate merciful words and deeds from words and deeds which demand sacrifice.

And here’s the rub. What that means is that there can be no access to goodness for us which doesn’t pass through our own discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy; our desire for sacrifice, not mercy, even when we’re protest loudly that we’re the merciful ones. 

That tough work is the work – the liturgy – of the Church.

Our instruction this morning comes in the form of a dead child and a haemorrhaging woman. 

The script reads like a breathless episode from a T.V. hospital drama. Jesus, come quickly! The twelve-year-old daughter of an eminent synagogue leader, Jarius, is dying. There’s is no time to lose. Like the best of hospital dramas, we expect the next scene to be that of Jesus, racing toute suite, sirens blaring, lights flashing, to the scene of the emergency.

Suddenly, from the crowd, out steps this woman. Who is she, this down-and-out with an issue of blood? She’s not in the script!

We’re told that this woman has been bleeding for twelve years (please note the same number of years that Jairus’ daughter has been alive). Her condition renders her ritually unclean, which means she can’t enter the synagogue, the heart and soul of her religious community. She can’t touch or be touched by anyone without rendering them unclean, too. Her very body – its femaleness, its porousness – has become a source of isolation and disgrace. She’s an outcast, an embarrassment, a pariah.

What she does is a stunning act of civil disobedience. She has no business polluting the crowds with her presence. She’s forbidden to touch other people; even her fingertips on Jesus’ cloak will defile him. And to touch him there, on the tassel of his garment - the tallith - worn by Jewish men to remind them of God’s Law and identifying them as observant Jews. It’s a scandal; an affront to common decency.

But she is healed. Her unnoticed healing – that would be miracle enough. But no. Jesus invites more. He insists on more. 

Jesus draws her out and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” ‘Daughter’, notice. A term of inclusion not exclusion. Every bit as much a daughter as Jarius’ child. Notice too, the emphasis that is laid on her faith and not on Jesus’ power. Yes, he felt power go from him when first she touched him; nevertheless, what the woman did is emphasized. Stepping out of the crowd is the act of faith; it means leaving the conspiracy of the Sacred, it means moving from the executioners to the victim; from the world of sacrifice to the world of mercy. That faith is reckoned to her as righteousness.

Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.

But, hang on, we’ve forgotten the main plot line! We’ve completely forgotten the little girl. It’s too late. She’s dead.

But Jesus takes the girl by the hand and says, “Child, get up!”. Or, a better translation, “Child, arise!” – the word for resurrection. Jesus brings life even out of death.

Why connect these two stories? Is there something significant about the “twelve years” in these two stories? Twelve years bleeding; twelve years old; twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples? 

But go and learn what it means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ 

Is this a message to Israel; to the New Israel? 

Note how these are two females. Might we read the symbols here and say that Jesus has raised both the woman and the girl from the death imposed on females by religion? The women from the death of social ostracism by the laws of their religion, the girls from the general burden of religious subjugation and humiliation? Twelve years old is the age of the bar/bat mitzvah when a child becomes responsible to obey the law of Moses.

Religion brought to the haemorrhaging woman a specific kind of death, and to the girl a general death under its laws. Both are now raised into a new life beyond religion. Two women are symbols of the Resurrection – of the New Covenant.

But go and learn what it means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ 

Jesus has ridden roughshod over the ritual taboos of the Mosaic Law: in public he touched a bleeding woman, the most disgusting of creatures under the Law, confounding the cultural horror of female pollution. He insisted the gesture be public: she touched him secretly; he called her out of the crowd openly. And then he took a corpse by the hand, touching the other great pollutant, the dead body. Jesus declares her divine image, and restores her life, a new life, beyond the sacrificial humiliation of religion.

But go and learn what it means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’

What the religious community had demanded in response to these two women was thought to be the practice of a good and merciful ethics. It wasn’t. Jesus demands that legalism and sacrifice give way to love and mercy. Whether Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, learned that message we are not told.

What are we – good and merciful people that we are – to learn from it? 

This, I think: When it comes to the work – the liturgy – of our ethical reckoning in pursuit of our being able to affirm, “Brother, I am saved!” – what the Christian faith offers us here is not law, not a list of prescriptions and prosriptions. Moral legalism in order to shore up the order or structure of the supposed goodness of this world – that’s not what Jesus offers us.

Instead, he offers us a bracing subversion from within of all human goodness and mercy, including our own. He offers us a daily stumbling awareness of our own complicity in hypocrisy – the hypocrisy of the crowd – and a becoming aware of quite how violent that hypocrisy is. For we tend to desire sacrifice and not mercy, under the delusion that we are being merciful. 

As that hypocrisy is exposed, we can begin to reach out to our brothers and sisters, neither more or less hypocritical than ourselves, who are on the way to being sacrificed – expelled – from the religious community by an apparently united moral order, which has an overweening certainty as to the evil of the other, and of its own moral rectitude.

But go and learn what it means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ 

Would that we had heard Mark’s account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter this morning. For it ends with the line: “Jesus told them to give her something to eat.”  

Was it the bread of life? Amen.