When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Jesus, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath. . . .If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
One of the first acts of Pope Francis was to call on the Church to live and to celebrate “An Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” during the church year of 2015-16. His having done so is, I believe, a measure of his extraordinary wisdom and insight. The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are ones that resonate in every time and place, and perhaps particularly in our current historical moment. “If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men.” As Matthew relates it, Jesus is telling these experts in the Law that they do not yet truly understand the meaning of these words from the prophet Hosea. I think I have to admit that I myself also do not really understand them in the depth of my heart.
In the setting of today’s gospel, the disciples of Jesus are hungry. Even though it is the sabbath, they begin to pick and eat the heads of grain from the field through which they are walking. The Pharisees are legally correct in calling them to task for breaking the rules of the sabbath. Jesus in response, however, reminds them that no less than David, when he and his companions were hungry, ate the bread of offering, which was only to be eaten by the priests. Jesus’ example affords us, perhaps, a way into deeper understanding of the difference between God’s view of us and our view of each other.
Given the intentions of Matthew’s gospel, there is no doubt that Matthew does not at all mean to diminish the place of the Law in the covenant between God and Israel. As he writes in 5:18, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” What Matthew does have Jesus asserting here is that the Law is not ultimate. “For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.” There is no demand that human beings be other than human beings. When they are hungry, they have to eat. When they are tired, they have to rest. When they are suffering, they need to be consoled. When they fail, they need to be forgiven so that they can keep on living and giving.
Now perhaps this all seems very obvious. Yet, it is not so well understood at the heart level. It is pointed out that in some languages, the words for human being are applied only to the members of one’s own tribe. Those who are outside of the tribe are described in other terms, usually derogatory ones. When soldiers are being prepared for war against another people, one of the first things they do is to learn a de-humanized term for them. In truth, it is not difficult to train us to see others as unlike and inferior to ourselves, for we do a variant of this on a daily basis.
I am a member of a small religious community. Because of our size, it is quite possible to know, at least by name and appearance, every other member. Pretty much each of us has an “identity” within the community. That identity is based, for the most part, on given external and quantifiable characteristics: appearance, intelligence, physical and verbal mannerisms, certain habitual ways of behaving, and so on. Sometimes these characteristics are what we “judge” to be positive ones. At other times, they are culturally or socially negative ones. In every case, however, we are thus given a place within the community, a restrictive portrait of personal identity from which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
Much of our difficulty with others lies in the fact that we cannot forgive them for who they are. The reason for this is that, in large part, we cannot forgive ourselves for whom we take ourselves to be. We “fix” the identity of others, failing to make space for their mystery, because we live out a fixed idea of ourselves. We live legalistically and judgmentally to the degree that we live our own life as rigid and reified. As life in formation, human life is always changing and hopefully growing. We can do this, however, only by trial and error. To be human is to be always partial, fallible, and always in need of Divine and human insight and direction. As Cardinal Newman said: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But this is a scandal to our pride form, and so its sense of perfection is a rectitude that we can limit and control.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, mercy is the very nature of God’’s covenant with the people. It is a love that is constant and always summoning the people to a more consistent and faithful response. God’s merciful love is mysterious to us because of its constancy. God has a different view of our humanity than we do. That different view is ultimately manifest in Jesus. “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
Mercy is difficult for us to “understand” and to live because we find it difficult to forgive our humanness. From the beginning the great temptation of humankind is the longing “to be as gods.” In the terms of the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, it is our “search for glory.” The Pharisees are the “big people” in their world. They see themselves as superior and so qualified to judge others. But aren’t we always doing the same? When I am judging, depreciating, and criticizing another, isn’t it because I am intent on being “bigger than” or superior to them? When I have another “figured out” doesn’t that succeed in distancing me from their “problems”?
When I know who I am, when I can live with my own humble and bumbling existence, when I am unthreatened by any criticism another might make of me, I am in a position to begin to “understand” what mercy means. For I can live in a measure of joy, and peace, and love, only because of the mercy, the constancy and fidelity in love toward me, of God. In Jesus we come to recognize that we should be grateful for and rejoice in our humanity, not fear or deny it.
As we see in the Pharisees, one of the great dangers of “religion” is that it becomes for us a way to seek glory, to dissociate from the truth of our humanity. At the age of 18 I entered religious life at least in part to seek what I understood to be “perfection.” This meant taking my perspectives and judgments about myself, and so others, as the norm. I would enhance those “spiritual” aspects of myself and deny or repress the physical or merely human ones. Over time, by the mercy of God, I came to understand that my judgments about the good and bad, the moral and sinful were badly mistaken. Spending some years trying to escape my humanity, I then had to reverse direction and slowly and painfully come home to myself, not as I wanted to be but as I was. It is in this humble place that we come to know, and so understand by experience rather than mere thought, the mercy of God.
That experience of God’s merciful love for us is how we come, as Jesus tells the Pharisees, to learn the meaning of the worlds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Publican in the gospel is justified because he prays but one thing, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” Unlike the Pharisee in the parable, he does not live by comparison and competition. He minds his own business, that being his attempts, by trial and error, to return to the Lord all the good that the Lord has done for him. He knows who he is, and so he need not project his fears, faults, and sins on others.
If the Incarnation teaches us anything, it is that we should cease to be ashamed of being human. Our way is the human way, a way of continually receiving form for our lives from God and mediated through every person, situation and event of our lives. And it is by gradually and tentatively giving form to our lives, by trial and error, that we might more and more incarnate in our everyday words and deeds the image of Christ we are called to be. Yet, we shall always, as the Publican, remain sinners. St. Paul’s life is transformed when he realizes that his weakness is a gift, for it is the way that God, rather than his own false pride form, can shine through in the world. And this is all due to the merciful and enduring love of God for us. When we acknowledge with our hearts that this is our story, we can then understand it to be the story of every other person, and so forgive them as we have been forgiven.
The Pharisees were people who continually repeated, “The law says this, doctrine says that,” the pope said. “But they forgot the first commandment of love and were closed in a cage of sacrifices, (saying), ‘We make our sacrifices to God, we keep the Sabbath, we do all we should and so we’ll be saved.’”
But, the pope said, “God saves us, Jesus Christ saves us and these men did not understand. They felt secure; they thought salvation came from them.”
In the same way today, he said, “we often hear faithful Catholics who see mercy at work and ask, ‘Why?'”
There are “many, many, always, even in the church today,” the pope said. “They say, ‘No, no you can’t, it’s all clear, they are sinners, we must send them away.'”
But, Pope Francis said, Jesus himself answered them when he said, “I have come not to call the just, but sinners.” So, “if you want to be called by Jesus, recognize you are a sinner.”
Pope Francis, Homily, September 21, 2017, America