Genesis 23:1-4, 19; 24:1-8, 62-67
Cleanliness laws were of high concern in the first century Palestinian world. They still are to this day. So why would this group of Pharisees, who are strict observers of the Law, enter another person’s home when it might lead to defilement? Such is the setting for today’s gospel reading. What are these Pharisees doing at the home of a tax collector when all of his unclean friends are there with him? In a harsh and critical way Jesus is criticized for the company he keeps. He is eating in the home of an unrighteous person. Curious; are not the ones who are criticizing Jesus also in the house eating?
The majority of the gospel provides a context to the teaching, "Go and learn the meaning of the words; I desire mercy and not sacrifice". It is a citation from the prophet Hosea. What a slap in the face this must be to one who has spent his life learning and teaching and protecting the law of God. They were part of a system that spent countless energy on the sacrifice of animals, even to the point of removing the human component. Let’s spend a few lines with sacrifice and mercy.
I think sacrifices can have several dimensions. Every day I am with people who make tremendous sacrifices for their children. These sacrifices are done out of love. Because they love their kids they will do anything for them. Other times I see people who will mentally make the choice to sacrifice something but it’s not done out of love. Behind the scenes they are always calculating what it is costing them. And still on other occasions I meet people who say that their time or talent or treasure is too valuable to them, and they couldn’t possibly think of sacrificing any of it. Question for pondering today, what is the role of sacrifice in your life? Do you make healthy sacrifices for God out of love?
Mercy defines Jesus’ understanding of his mission. He states clearly, "I have come…" His invitation is to include people who have been excluded from the banquet of mercy. The challenge with mercy is that it isn’t task specific. To mark the beginning or end is not definitive. At least when you sacrifice an animal you know when the task is complete and it can be checked off the big "To-Do" list. Mercy is too fluid. Like forgiveness, mercy has a way of showing up down the road. And if mercy takes higher precedence than the sacrifice of animals, where does that leave the accusers of Jesus who are more concerned with purity and defilement?
I am left wondering what happens to this group of Pharisees. Do they leave this house without eating? Perhaps they stay at the table and change their critical attitude. Clearly what happens here is testimony to Luke 6:38b "For the measure you measure will be measured back to you."
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.