"With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath." He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from
The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
One afternoon my Mum, keen on botany, was strolling along a road neighbouring our farm, looking at the native plants. Unknown to her, a dangerous prisoner had escaped from the local jail two or three hours before. Police had arrived from all over the mid-north area, and even procured a spotter plane. It was sent to check out the sighting of a suspicious person about six miles west of Gladstone. This was the reason Mum's quiet stroll was shattered by a frighteningly low flying aircraft.
Discounting Mum, the pilot banked tightly over our scrub. He spotted a figure skulking among the trees, close to the main road.
"Pilot to base. I've got him. He's in the scrub just south of the Pirie road. I'll circle to guide you in."
The 'skulker' was, in fact, my father, innocently carrying out a late afternoon inspection of his sheep, as farmers do. He too, was unaware of the earlier events of the afternoon. His curiosity was inevitably roused by the plane's persistent low circling above him.. He wondered if perhaps the pilot was lost, or even in trouble, and needing a safe place to land before dark. He began to run back to the farm house.
"Pilot to base. You blokes better hurry. He's making a run for a farm house about a quarter mile away. I'll keep on his tail."
To get to the house, Dad had to cross an old quarry, where he noticed a pick, abandoned by one of us kids. He grabbed the pick to take it back to the shed.
"Pilot to base, he's picked up some kind of weapon. I'll try and warn the house."
The "house" at that moment consisted only of myself, perhaps ten, and my two sisters. We were so greatly entertained by the plane roaring overhead almost at roof level, we didn't even notice the 'convict' driving off at high speed in our stolen utility.
"Pilot to base. He's stolen a farm vehicle. He's heading east...... We're one mile east of the Laura turn off. He's turned down the Huddlestone road, heading south now."
"Err.... Pilot to base.... The clown's driving up and down in a paddock..... What kind of idiot is this guy!"
I believe it was shortly after then that Dad had to explain to armed officialdom that this was where the crop dusters always landed..... and he thought that if the plane had needed to land.... and....
and we can imagine the confusion and frustration all round.
This comedy of errors presents us with an allegory of life. Everyone of us gets things wrong some of the time. None of us- even high up , as it were, with the clear and privileged view of an aeroplane pilot, can see and understand everything. Often what we can see is a confused complexity in the dusk, with the view crowded by trees, with evil skulking somewhere nearby. We cannot remain like little children, innocently entertained and untouched by the dramas around us. How do we live for Christ?
The wisdom of the powers of our society- the institutions of business and government- and even the everyday conventional wisdom with which society seeks to equip us, tends to take its view of life from 'on high.' It tends to assume from the safe and remote view of its own aeroplane that it has the full understanding of what's happening on the ground. (Or at least what's important down there.) The politicians in their VIP Jet know what life is like for the farmers on the ground.....??
-and are we not often the same- so often assuming we know what is good and right for other people?
We might be tempted to point out that in our story/allegory the man on the ground was wrong too. He didn't know what was happening, and got it all wrong as well! This is true. But I would say two things: firstly, by his immediate actions, he lived out the consequences of his truth, with a care and compassion which often we don't credit to those different from us. And acted with a care and compassion sometimes lacking in our own loftier prejudging of situations.
Secondly, God gives the view of the people on the ground.... (the view of the little people, and the different people.....) a certain priority. Using the imagery of our story/allegory, God says, "I want you to stand in the farmer's shoes before you judge or act." I'm not saying that the other person's viewpoint is always right in God's eyes. But God says, 'Look and listen there, too- and first!'
We see in the reading: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Jesus says it twice in Matthew, and we can see him living out the implications of that statement all through the gospels. He is attacking with those words. the conventional wisdom of his times which said that if you kept the Law, you would be doing the right thing by God. 'Do all the right sacrifices in the temple, and keep all the right rules and regulations in life, and God will be happy.'
In fact, sinners... were not actually people who did bad things. Sinners were people who didn't do things. They didn't keep the law properly. They were the people- according to conventional wisdom- who didn't offer the sacrifices God required. They didn't keep the right rules properly.
But in Hosea, God said
"I desire steadfast love, and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings."
It's this desire of God, which Jesus is placing before us.
The word often translated as mercy is about the kind of relationships God wishes us to have with each other. Indeed, it's the kind of relationship God has offered to have with us, too. God didn't stay lofty, on high, watching from above. God 'came down' with us, as a human being. The word mercy might be better translated as compassion. It means not just sympathy, which might be from a distance. Com-passion literally means to feel-with. (Passion: feel and com: with.) We are to enter into the feelings of others. To feel with them. To understand- in the sense of 'standing under'.... their feelings and experience. To get into their skin almost.... as God was in Christ.
That, said Jesus, is what God requires. Standing under the experience of another- compassion, not rigid keeping of the law.
Didn't Jesus say, though, that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away? Yes. Compassion does not mean we ignore or lessen God's law. But how we do the law depends on where we stand. Jesus said, essentially, stand in the place of compassion, and then do what you see that the law requires. The conventional wisdom of the time said, stand on the high mountain of the law, fulfil that first, and then you may be compassionate.
Such a different standpoint has a profound effect on our behaviour: The high view of law, abandons the wounded traveller lying on the roadside in the name of a holiness a God requires. Standing in compassion drives us to stopping on the road with the Samaritan and to hearing the law again and anew:
What does the Lord require?
to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
to learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:7
Disengaged Holiness, tradition, respectability..... all such pretences of God's desire fade into the background.
I hope to take some Canadian friends up to Mt Osmond. From there one can see almost all of Adelaide. There is an uninterrupted view. Conventional wisdom- economic rationalism and the momentary pragmatism of our day, claims to give such an all encompassing view of how our society should be run to our benefit. It is- although we don't use such overt language- seen as 'the God's will' for today, just as the keeping of Law and tradition was seen as Gods will in Jesus' time. But keeping the laws of such modern Gods has the peculiar blindness of walking past the wounded and oppressed in the name of (a holiness which is) well.... really just one more kind of political correctness. Economist, expedient pragmatism says the way of compassion is unworldly, out of touch with hard reality, and foolish, with limited vision.
Yet the True God of Israel calls us to... Compassion.
And if compassion means to stand on the low flat ground of Victoria Square, instead of high up a Mount Osmond with a better view..... if compassion means our view is limited by what is close by- what of it? For our view is hemmed in by the towers of government, commerce, and hedonism. We see hard reality there on the ground, with the dispossessed aboriginal people who have walked in from their camp on West Terrace. We see the fearful whites walking around them, and the lunchtime refugees from the halls of power, hastening into the havens of Mills and Boon for a few short minutes. And the dreamers,, and hopeful ones, staring into the water, a sign of God compassionately at the centre of all things, not constricted into the church buildings on the periphery.
[For non-Adelaide-ians: Pilgrim Church, where this sermon was preached, and St Francis Xavier Cathedral, are on the periphery of Victoria Square, among the state government administration buildings, the police building and law courts, the GPO, and the Hilton. Victoria Square is the central square of the city, and often has an uneasy mix of displaced, often drunk people, tourists and office workers.]
God calls us to compassion. I desire compassion, not sacrifice. I desire that you will seek to follow me from a place on the ground, with my people, not from a position of privilege or power or disinterest.
Is this only a demand of discipleship, or is it a demand which carries with it Good News? I believe there is great Good News with all this.
I see in some people a depth of character, an aliveness of spirit unwearied or soured by age, a gentle joy unspoiled by tragedy, and a certain inner peace. It is something I crave- a pearl of great price. It is a mark of salvation coming to some fruition in a soul. It is also the mark of compassion. Compassion is a healing grace. God desires compassion, not sacrifice. And living compassion, we find the compassionate God within us. Amen.
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