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The Myth of Sacrifice – A Maundy Thursday Meditation

April 2, 2015

The Myth of Sacrifice

(Matthew 9:9-13)

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As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”

12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi determined that it was God’s will that his Franciscan Order devote its resources to converting the Muslims to the East of their headquarters in Italy. And so he hand selected five monks, led by Berard of Carbio, whose main qualification, it appears, was his fluent in the Arabic language, as missionaries to Morocco.

The five men set sail for Seville, where they began to preach the Gospel, but they had little success. Frustrated, they went on to Morocco, where they turned up the intensity of their efforts, standing all day every day in the town squares, not only sharing the Good News, but loudly denouncing the Islamic faith and its followers.

The more they were asked to stop, the louder and more strident they became, interpreting resistance as a sign of God’s favor. Local officials became concerned because they were upsetting and frightening people, who assumed that they were insane, and possible dangerous. Again, they were warned to leave or face legal sanctions. Berard and his colleagues determined that the greatest sacrifice they could make for Jesus was their very lives, and so they continued to antagonize the local people until, out of frustration, the local king ordered them arrested. When he himself confronted them about their behavior, they were so defiant that, in a fit of rage, he beheaded each of them with his own scimitar.

Today, the Feast of the Martyrs is celebrated every year on January 16th in their honor, remembering their great and noble sacrifice for the cause of Christ.

But I wonder – what would Jesus have to say about all of this?

If we are honest with ourselves, there are two very different types of sacrifices we can make: on one hand, we have those that are made in order to make us look good; to put others in our debt; to help us get something that we want; it sacrifices out of anger or fear and produces martyrs. The second type of sacrifice is made for the good of others; it doesn’t care about our reputation or what we might get in return; it sacrifices out of love, and it produces followers.

Those who were threatened by Jesus were religious people of the first category. They created rules upon rules and made a great show of how much they suffered for God, and yet, rather than applauding them, Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs” and “sons of Satan”. Why? As Richard Rohr puts it, this type of sacrifice is characteristic of a person “seeking moral high ground and the social esteem that comes with it.” They want notches in their spiritual belts and high fives from other religious people, but meanwhile, they alienate others who desperately need God.

That’s why Jesus’ words are so important for us to understand today. “Forget about the sacrifices,” he says. “I don’t want martyrs. I want you to do something even more difficult: instead, show mercy.” The Greek term he uses here (eleos) refers to outward acts of kindness and care that demonstrate an inward state of compassion and love toward the miserable and afflicted. The Pharisees looked at Matthew and saw a failure, a traitor – a sinner who deserved destruction; Jesus look at the same man and saw a lost and hurting man who desperately needed to be reminded of God’s love and acceptance.

As we contemplate the great sacrifice Christ made on our behalf this evening, I encourage you to turn your thoughts away from what you can do to convince others that Christianity is right or that the Bible is God’s Word. I encourage you to set aside the shoulds and ought tos and musts for a moment and, instead, ask God to fill your heart with the mercy and compassion for which all of creation is groaning. Ask him to make his life within you so evident that each day you fulfill St. Francis’ original commission to his followers: “Preach the Gospel wherever you go, and, when necessary, use words.”

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