“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” God said. The gospels record several occasions on which Jesus critiqued the Pharisees and scribes for failing to understand the meaning of this verse from Hosea 6:6, in which the Hebrew word for “mercy” is hesed, translated as “steadfast love” in the NRSV. The Greek word used for “mercy” in the gospel texts is eleos, translated as “kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them.”
But now it is Holy Week, and if you’re a Christian, you’re likely to hear sermons about Jesus’s sacrificial death–but in many churches, the whole affair of the Passion, especially its human element, is likely to be glossed over, with God being presented as the sole actor. We’re taught that God required this bloody sacrifice in order to offer us mercy, and so God arranged the crucifixion and found it pleasing. No need to look at human behavior–the Jews and Romans were merely instruments to carry out God’s design.
It seems like we still don’t understand.
Ancient myths were created to hide the founding murder on which a society was built, according to late anthropologist René Girard. The myths paint the victims of collective, sacrificial violence as guilty, deserving of their punishment, or as willing sacrifices whose death the gods required to bring peace to society. They are never portrayed as the innocent victims that they were, scapegoated and sacrificed to restore social harmony.
We, too, are guilty of mythologizing the crucifixion to hide the murder of Jesus if we approach it as merely a God-ordained and executed event with the human actors little more than puppets. If we refuse to acknowledge that it was an act of collective violence and the murder of an innocent man (who was God himself), we will fail to understand Jesus’s many exhortations to be merciful and his prayer to the Father to forgive his murderers “for they know not what they do.” The crucifixion reveals much about us when we look a little deeper at what it means when we confess that Jesus was innocent and that he “died for our sins.”
Jesus was targeted and crucified because his teaching subverted the established order. He challenged all the laws that those in power used to maintain their authority. His teaching revealed that to truly fulfill the law and the prophets, we must be able to see through them to the loving and merciful God, and then interpret all scripture and all laws, all customs and traditions, and all behavior through this lens.
God doesn’t want our sacrifices to “make up” for our sins. God wants us to judge correctly, to discern his character, and to stop trying to work the system and its rules in order to get away with living contrary to God’s character. He wants our love, best expressed by imitating God’s own character, which is to be loving.
That was Jesus’s message. The Jewish leaders didn’t understand it–they didn’t want to because it didn’t serve their interests. And so they continued doing exactly what Jesus preached against, using the system and its rules to try to get away with acting contrary to God’s will–in short, it’s an attempt to manipulate God and control him through their cunning use of the legal system.
Failing to understand what it means that God desires mercy/love, not sacrifice, the frenzied mob unwittingly scapegoated and offered up an innocent man for the sake of the established order. They believed an innocent man to be guilty because they failed to discern the true character of God. They had substituted legalism and sacrifices, deceptive appearances of righteousness, for the true righteousness of loving God with our whole being and loving others as ourselves.
This week, many of the same Christians who will praise and thank God for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ will continue to neglect the true character of God who offers mercy freely. They will hide behind the legal system to justify their scapegoating of people on the fringes of society: the drug users and addicts, the refugees and undocumented immigrants, among others. They will defend the use of state violence to arrest them, imprison them, deport them, seize their property, confiscate their lives. They will defend the use of our military to spread ‘freedom’ in parts of the world we’ll never have to see, with little concern for the children whose bodies lie broken in the rubble. “These must be holy sacrifices, acceptable and pleasing to God, for the good of American society.”
The crucifixion and resurrection break the chains of bondage to our sins by revealing to us the innocence of the victim. The crucifixion shatters all our illusions of self-righteousness, and reveals to us that all of it is but filthy rags. It proves that for all our self-righteous boasting and claims to holiness, we would kill God himself if he came to us.
The crucifixion and resurrection also reveal to us the innocence of those we have scapegoated in our personal lives and families, in our communities and churches, and in the larger society. If we are so wrong in our judgment that we would condemn God himself, how reliable are our judgments? So we forgive, and we show mercy, and we withhold judgment–even of ourselves (1 Cor 4:3-5).
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:36-38)
We must be merciful lest we condemn the innocent. We must be merciful, for we know not what we do. We must be merciful because God is merciful.