Mercy as Sacrifice

Jesus directly quoted the prophet Hosea on at least two occasions when he said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” – not to mention the number of other times he spoke of the mercifulness of God and called his followers to forgive others; to show mercy.

Mercy is something very hard for us to understand.

We want people to pay for what they have done. We want justice!

And, after all, God is a God of justice, so how can a God of justice also be merciful and still be just?

This is a real dilemma for many people — and they try to strike an appropriate balance between when to show mercy (when “I” decide you have shown enough repentance and “penance”) and when to distribute justice (when “I” think you haven’t and therefore need to be taught a lesson).

The problem is that Jesus does not say “I desire mercy and sacrifice”, he says “mercy not sacrifice”.

Showing mercy feels so hard. How can we just do nothing? How can we just “let things go” and watch people get away with things?


Mercy IS hard. Forgiveness hurts.

When I look at the history of sacrifice in Christianity (and its predecessor) I wonder if perhaps we have missed the point all along. The sacrificial system has always been about taking away OUR sin, not identifying victims we can condemn for THEIR sin.

In the OT, animals were used as our substitute, but this was a shadow of what was to come. In the NT, Jesus becomes our substitute, but he sacrifices HIMSELF.

He clearly says that no one was taking his life from him; that he was laying it down of his own choice.

He chose to bear the weight of our sins. He sacrificed himself for our sake.

And perhaps that is what mercy is like. Perhaps that is why mercy is so hard. Perhaps that is why forgiveness hurts.

Mercy is sacrifice!

Mercy is when we bear the pain, shame, and embarrassment of being wronged and “doing nothing”.

Mercy is sacrificing what is best for me for what is best for you.

It hurts. It feels like death. It requires suffering.

Mercy is when “I” take the pain “You” deserve.


I’ll leave you with this (rather long) scene … a few weeks ago, Leanne and I watched a movie called Philomena (definitely worth a watch if you can stomach some language).

The basics of the story are this; (based on a true story) an Irish lady (Philomena) in the 1950’s has a son outside of marriage. Her father sends her to a catholic convent to punish her (or because he feels disgraced). One day, she discovers the nuns have given her son up for adoption without her having any knowledge of it and/or having a chance to say goodbye. She keeps her child secret for 50 years, but throughout those years had frequently attempted to find her son but was told repeatedly by the convent that they could not help her — claiming all records were lost in a fire.

After an intensive search with the help of an investigative journalist (Martin), Philomena discovers her son was adopted by an American couple and died a few years earlier. Before he died, he attempted to find her and was told by the convent she had abandoned him and did not wish to be found (despite them knowing who she was and that she was looking for him).

Still, his dying wish was to buried at the convent where he was born. So, the scene below is at the end of the story when the investigative journalist confronts the former head nun – who had refused to help both Philomena and her son.


MARTIN: Why did you do it? When a mother and son were searching for each other, why did you keep them apart?

HILDEGARDE looks at him … but still she refuses to answer. Then, a door on the other side of the room – the one that opens into the corridor and which was previously locked, suddenly opens. SISTER CLAIRE – who has a master key – and the PRIEST have doubled back and now burst in. MARTIN stands up to face them.

PRIEST: We’re going to call the police unless you leave immediately.

MARTIN: I’m not leaving without an answer.

PRIEST: I’m sorry I think your whole manner, coming in to a holy place like this, and behaving the way you have, is absolutely disgusting.

He turns back to HILDEGARDE

MARTIN: (Low voice, in control) I’ll tell you what’s disgusting, lying to a dying man. You could have given them a few precious moments with his mother before he passed away – but you chose to lie. That’s disgusting.

SISTER CLAIRE: Come on Sister Hildegarde, you don’t have to listen to this.

Sister CLAIRE starts to wheel her away from Martin. HILDEGARDE speaks, jabbing a bony finger at MARTIN.

SISTER HILDEGARDE: Let me tell you something – I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self denial and mortification of the flesh, that’s what brings us closer to God. Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves, and their own carnal incontinence.

MARTIN: You mean they had sex?

SISTER HILDEGARDE: What’s done is done – what do you expect us to do about it now?

PHILOMENA: Nothing. There’s nothing to be said. I’ve found my son, that’s what I came here for.

The room falls quiet. MARTIN sees PHILOMENA standing at the door Sister Claire and the Priest came through.

PHILOMENA: (She wants to go) Martin.

MARTIN: Hang on hang on. (He turns back to HILDEGARDE. He is starting to lose it.) What you can do is say sorry! How about that? Apologize. And then you can go out there and clear all the weeds and crap off the graves of the mothers and babies who died here. Stop trying to hide them away.

HILDEGARDE: Their suffering was atonement for their sins.

MARTIN: One of them was fourteen years old!

PHILOMENA: (Sharply) That’s enough Martin!

HILDEGARDE: The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge – not the likes of you.

MARTIN: Really? Because I think if Jesus was here right now he’d tip you out of that [censored 😉] wheelchair – and you wouldn’t get up and walk.

PHILOMENA: Stop it! Stop it! (To CLAIRE and the PRIEST) I’m sorry, I didn’t want him to come in here like this and make a scene.

MARTIN gets up and goes over to PHILOMENA. We see a pious smile creep across HILDEGARDE’S face.

MARTIN: (Incredulous) Why are you apologizing to them? Anthony was dying of Aids and she still wouldn’t tell him about you.

PHILOMENA: I know! But it happened to me. Not you. And it’s up to me what to do about all this. It’s my choice.

MARTIN: So you’re just going to do nothing?

PHILOMENA: No. (Turns to Sister HildegardeSister Hildegarde, I want you to know that I forgive you.

HILDEGARDE’S face drops and she turns her head away from PHILOMENA with an angry grunt, much happier with Martin’s abuse than Philomena’s forgiveness. MARTIN looks at PHILOMENA, floored.

MARTIN: What..? Just like that?

PHILOMENA: It’s not ‘just like that’! It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do. (Tears in her eyes) I don’t want to hate people. Look at you. I don’t want to be like you.

MARTIN: (Close to tears with anger and frustration) I’m angry!

PHILOMENA: I know. It must be exhausting.



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