God Desires Mercy, Not Sacrifice
Gospel Commentary for 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, JUNE 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- There is something moving about today’s Gospel. Matthew isn’t telling us what Jesus said or did someday for some person, but what Jesus said and did for him personally.
It is an autobiographical passage, the story of the meeting with Christ that changed his life. “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).
But this episode is not reported in the other Gospels because of its personal importance for Matthew. The interest in this passage has to do with what happens after the moment of the call. Matthew wants to offer “a banquet at his house” to bid farewell to his coworkers, “publicans and sinners.” The Pharisees’ negative reaction was to be expected. Jesus answers them: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12-13).
What does this line that Christ takes up from the prophet Hosea mean? Does it mean that all sacrifice and mortification are useless and that we only need to love to set everything right? From this passage some might conclude that we should reject the whole ascetic attitude of Christianity as a residue of a rigorist or Manichean mentality that today we have left behind.
First of all it is important to note the profound change in perspective in the passage from Hosea to Christ. In Hosea, the words refer to man, to what God wants from man. God wants love and awareness from man, not external sacrifices and animal holocausts.
As spoken by Jesus, these words refer instead to God. The love that is spoken of is not that which God expects from man, but the love God has for man. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means: I want to be merciful, not to condemn. Its biblical equivalent is found in Ezekiel: “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he convert and live.” God does not want to “sacrifice” his creature but to save him.
With this qualification, we better understand the passage in Hosea better too. God does not want sacrifice “at all costs,” as if he took pleasure in seeing us suffer; nor does he want sacrifices that are aimed at placing our rights and merits before him, or that result from a misunderstanding of duty. He wants rather the sacrifice that is required by his love and by the observance of the commandments.
In the “Imitation of Christ” it says “one does not live in love without suffering,” and this is confirmed by daily experience. There is no love without sacrifice. In this sense, Paul invites us to make our whole life “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).
Sacrifice and mercy are both good things but they can become bad if misapplied. They are good things if -- as Christ did -- we choose sacrifice for ourselves and mercy for others; they can become bad things if on the contrary we choose mercy for ourselves and sacrifice for others, that is, if we are indulgent with ourselves and rigorous with others, ready to excuse ourselves and quick to judge others. Do we really have nothing to think about, in this regard, in our conduct?
We cannot conclude this comment on the call of Matthew without an affectionate and grateful thought about this evangelist who will accompany us during this liturgical year. Thank you, Matthew also called Levi. How much poorer our knowledge of Christ would be without you!
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Hosea 6:3-6; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13.