Mercy and Sacrifice


There is a story that the disciples of Jesus were criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the sabbath when they picked heads of grain and ate them as they walked through a field (see Matthew 12: 1-8, Mark 2: 23-28, Luke 6: 1-5). Jesus defends them by pointing to similar situations in Israel’s history. He also declares that as “Son of Man”—a title that appears in the book of the prophet Daniel (2: 13-14) and that indicates divine kingship—he is Lord of the sabbath. 

In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus declares that the “sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” The sabbath was instituted by God for the sake of justice: so that the human person could give God the worship that is God’s due. It was instituted by God for the sake of human dignity: so that human beings could have the rest and leisure they require and which imitates God whom Genesis said rested on the seventh day after all the work of creation (2: 3).

Matthew has Jesus quoting a verse from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6: 6). What is translated here as “mercy” is also the word “love.”  God wants love and mercy and not the empty sacrificial rituals that Hosea inveighed against.  This is the “sacrifice” that God does not want. However, there is another “sacrifice” that is essential to love and mercy.  It is the sacrifice of self, the denial of self-interest, the rejection of retaliation.

The greatest sign of mercy and love is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. He died not for the righteous but for sinners (Romans 5: 8). He died begging pardon for those who tortured and killed him and even made excuses for them (Luke 23: 34).

July 19 is the anniversary of Fr. Lawrence Jenco’s death in 1996. Fr. Jenco was a Servite priest who was the regional director of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon in 1985. He was kidnapped and spent the next 564 days in captivity as a hostage. He was blindfolded most of the time and transported from place to place in a secret compartment under trucks where he was almost asphyxiated by the noxious diesel fumes. He was beaten. After his release he wrote a book—“Bound to Forgive”—and he began the first chapter with these words of Jesus as recorded by Luke: “But I say to those who listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6: 27-28). This holy priest forgave his captors and tormenters and even asked their forgiveness for the times that he himself had harbored hatred and thoughts of revenge in his heart. (I wrote about this in another blog entry here.)

What gave Fr. Jenco the ability to forgive in this way? The Eucharist. He heard the Word of God and allowed it to enter his heart to transform it from a heart hardened by a righteous anger that had become bitter hatred to a heart of mercy and love. He received the Word of God-Made-Flesh in Holy Communion and allowed the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus to transform his heart. 

Past, current, and, no doubt, future events reveal a world desperately in need of conversion, of mercy and love. That will require sacrifice, a sacrificial mercy that begins here, with my heart and yours. Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like yours!