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I Will Have Mercy


The case against water baptism is expanded to include all sacraments in the article below.

"Learn what this means: I will have mercy and not sacrifice." Matthew 9:13

The verse above is repeated several times in the gospels (e.g. Matthew 12:7). It is a significant part of what Jesus came to teach. In the Old Testament, God was building a people who were to be different from the rest of the world. At times those people openly turned against God and worshipped the gods of the heathen. And at other times they continued steadfastly in their praises of the God of Israel, but did so in such a way as to indicate that they had not internalised the values which God was seeking for in them.

Jesus was saying that their religious acts of worship, (sacraments or `sacrifices' as they were called then) had ceased to perform the function for which they had been instituted, and it was time to replace them.

It's not that God had made a mistake in the Old Testament, but simply that the distortions had so confused the people that it was time to throw out the old model and bring in a radically new one. When such dramatic changes are made, it causes strong reactions from those who can see the good points in the old model. Until they can see that the replacement has all the best of the old plus improvements, rejection will continue.

It is hard for us to imagine how shocking Jesus' statement would have sounded to the Jewish mind. He was saying that the same God who had instituted animal sacrifices in the Old Testament was now saying that he did not want that any more. From the Christian perspective it is easy to think that he was simply saying something about his own death taking the place of animal sacrifices.... and there is some truth in that.

But if you look closely you will see that he does not say the sacrifice is changing or being replaced by a different sacrifice. Something is being thrown out altogether; and we believe it is the concept of sacraments in general. God is not interested in religious rituals... even when they relate to something as significant as the sacrificial death of Christ.

Jesus was saying, "I want mercy and not sacraments; love and not holy communion; fellowship and not church attendance; forgiveness and not water baptism". (Hebrews 10:5) All of these things in the traditional Christian context represent exactly what sacrifices meant to the Jews. Sacrifices and all that went with them brought them together in remembrance of God's mercy. But they also divided them from others who worshipped differently, most notably the Samaritans.

Jesus was saying that unless they could see their religious rituals as being not only secondary, but expendable altogether, they would remain blind to situations where more good could be accomplished by some less ritualistic expression of love and faith, i.e. "mercy" in preference to "sacraments".

Certainly sacraments have caused far more division than love in the history of the Christian Church. They seem to represent superstition and religious pride more than love and faith. While they may at times serve a genuine Christian purpose, the overall effect has been the same as the divisive, judgmental effect that came from ritual sacrifices in Jewish history.

As the letter to the Hebrews pointed out, church attendance (i.e. repeating the same acts of worship over and over each week) also falls short of what Jesus came to teach. (Hebrews 10:11-12)

When we dare to challenge sacred traditions, the obvious questions come up about how all this fits in with the traditional arguments from scripture, in favour of such things as communion and church attendance. But think about how much scriptural support there is in the Bible for animal sacrifices, and put that alongside the snippets of scriptural support that exist for such things as church attendance, communion or water baptism. And then consider whether the institutional church may have turned a few proof texts into cornerstones of our faith, and thus exaggerated even the point being made in the proof texts.

What if "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together as the manner of some is," (Hebrews 10:25) is actually charging us not to forsake living together in Christian communities, the way the early Christians did (Acts 2:44-45) and the way almost no one does today? What if "As often as you eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me," (1 Corinthians 11:26) is actually referring to something Christians living together do three times a day every day? What if "Go and baptise them," (Matthew 28:19) means "cover them with God's Spirit" and not cover them with water? When we began to question the favorite proof texts, we were surprised at just how shaky most of them were.

Jesus said "I will have mercy and not sacrifice," (Matthew 9:13) and what most people heard was the second half of the statement. They missed the first half, and they ended up branding him as a heretic. His real message was contained in the first half ("I will have mercy."), but it was people's obsession with the sacraments (and their confidence in proof texts to support them in that obsession) that kept them from getting the real spirit of what God wanted to teach them.

God wants mercy and not religion. But how many of us are willing to let go of our religious crutches and venture out into the frightening uncertainty of a world where love, faith and honesty alone mark the difference between right and wrong?

(See also shibboleths and dogmas.)

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