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Mercy, Not Sacrifice
By Fr. John McCuen
Nov 29, 2010, 10:00
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Source: Rumblings from a Desert Cave




Today we celebrate and remember the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. He was a tax collector – every bit as unpopular at the time as he would be today – and was at his work when the Lord Jesus called to him, saying, “Follow me.” To his credit, Matthew did so, leaving behind all worldly possessions and possibilities, choosing instead an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. According to tradition (although modern Biblical scholarship may say otherwise), he wrote the first account of the birth, life, and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ; and the account he wrote is first among the four Gospels in the New Testament canon. This is why he is called an Apostle and an Evangelist: for he was one of the Twelve who accompanied our Lord, and one of the four who wrote about Him after His passion, crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven. St. Matthew went to Ethiopia, where he established a church and consecrated a bishop. He also baptized the wife and son of a prince of that land, causing the prince to seek the arrest of the apostle. The first band of soldiers sent to bring him to the prince returned without him, saying they had heard his voice, but could not see him. The second detachment found the saint, but the light that shined from him dazzled them so that they cast down their weapons and ran away. The prince himself went to find the saint, and was blinded by the same light; his sight being restored only by the prayers of St. Matthew. This did not prevent the prince from seizing the apostle; and, after many tortures, in which he was protected and sustained by the Lord, the holy apostle yielded his spirit to his Master. The prince ordered that his body be placed in a casket made of lead and thrown into the sea; but the bishop, following the appearance of the apostle in a dream, found the body. It was this miracle that brought the prince to repent, and to embrace the Christian faith; and he became first a priest, and then later the bishop of that land, serving the Lord as a faithful shepherd of the flock until his own falling asleep in the Lord.

In the reading from the Gospel bearing his name, we hear of the feast that St. Matthew gave after he left behind his earthly life to follow the way of Jesus Christ. It is striking to hear how the Pharisees criticized our Lord for sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners. We should recall that the Pharisees sought to fulfill all the commandments of the law of Moses, which included avoiding meals with those who were “unclean” – and certainly Matthew and the others gathered for the feast he gave qualified for that distinction in the eyes of the Pharisees. Our Lord speaks to them; and we would do well to hear and understand what He is saying. First, He says that He did not come for the righteous, but to save sinners. Then, He rebukes them, saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Of course, it is the work of an evangelist to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know Him, who have not yet come to Him for mercy and forgiveness and new life in Him. We don’t have any real problems with the first part of His reply to the Pharisees. But that second part? For some reason, this can be a very real challenge for some of us as we seek to embrace and practice the Orthodox way of life.

The danger for us is that we can get so caught up in trying to do everything right that we can miss the real center of the Orthodox faith: to love God with the fullness of our being, and to love others as we love ourselves. If we remember to pray, but do not remember the poor, what god does praying do for us? If we remember the fast, but do not feed the hungry, does our fasting really benefit us? If we confess our sins, but judge others in our hearts, have we truly confessed? If we pay more attention to what others are doing while we are in church than we are to the prayers, have we really taken part in the worship of God? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord – and I take that to include the need for us to be blind to the faults of everyone else, except perhaps in order to pray for them, and to not be so focused on outward acts, as valuable as these may be, that we do not remember to forgive, and to love, and to be patient, and to be humble, and not to judge, or tell another person what to do – unless, of course, they come to you and ask.

Brothers and sisters, let us leave behind the ways of the world – including the ways of the Pharisees – and, following the example of the holy apostle and evangelist Matthew, let us be transformed from our lives in this sinful world to shine with the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ, even to the point of praying for those who seek our deaths.

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