Mercy, And Not Sacrifice

The icons shine. When you give them even cursory attention, they shine. Icons are in the habit of gathering dust. They are bought in a moment of illumination and love, affixed to the wall, and there they stay for months and years on end, gathering dust. It is difficult to clean them all. Sometimes they are too many. Sometimes the edges are rough, you cannot run a cloth over them. Sometimes they are simply affixed to the wall too firmly or they are stuck.

And yet they respond to even a superficial dusting. Just a quick wipe, they seem to gleam, to appreciate the attention, to speak of another world where all is light. They beckon you onwards. ‘Keep going,’ they seem to say, ‘the race is not so long, it will be over soon.’ It is like when you have an illness, you feel terrible for a few days, but then when you get better, the life surges back into your veins, you are grateful simply to be alive, you almost cannot believe it. I wonder if this short cycle of illnesses like colds and flus isn’t a preparation for what death will be like, a feeling awful, followed by a rush of gladness and disbelief, of joy and gratitude when the weight is lifted. Having shed the stones of the illness that irked your feet, you will rise again, but this time your feet won’t touch the ground.

Simple things. The eye of the lamb on a mug. The resurrected cactus in its new ceramic pot. We ignore most of the things most of the time. Most of them become covered in dust for our sight. We see only what we want to see, or are capable of seeing, which isn’t much. How much do we notice the street we are walking along, when we are immersed in our thoughts? How much do we notice our neighbour’s need or put ourselves in their shoes, try to perceive the world as they do? I’m not sure we really see each other. We get glimpses, but most of the time it’s a cardboard cut-out, a presentation.

My father was just in a restaurant in Folkestone. He couldn’t position himself under the table properly, so that he could eat. An anonymous stranger sitting behind him got to his feet and slid my father’s chair closer to the table, carried out his purpose for him. My father was surprised, taken aback, mumbled thanks. Again, at the end of the meal, they exchanged a few words. He was so touched by this simple act of kindness that he felt the need to communicate it to me a few days later. An act of simple kindness.

I have been reading St Matthew’s Gospel in Greek. It is known that this Gospel was aimed primarily at the Jews (it is the only Gospel that was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek) and it was concerned with presenting the life of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, the words of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, who it seemed foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Spirit worked through them. There are many verses in St Matthew’s Gospel that are printed in bold, quotes from the Old Testament, but the only one that I am aware is repeated is when Christ says to those around him, ‘Go and learn what it means, “I want mercy and not sacrifice”’ (Mt 9:13, 12:7).

God wants mercy, not sacrifice. What does this mean? Is it possible that in this spiritual training ground that is the world God has his finger on the pulse of everything, he knows what we need and sends what is best for us, all he requires from us is not great sacrifice, but simple acts of kindness? We think we need to control events around us, we think only we will be able to find the resources that we need to enable ourselves and our families to survive, but is it possible that God has already arranged these things – the sacrifice – after all, he knows every blade of grass, every hair on your head, and what he needs from us is not the big picture, not the creation of the world (he brought the creatures to Adam to name, not to create), only that we open our eyes a little, that we notice our neighbour, that we blow away the dust?

Mercy, and not sacrifice. When you believe, the world catches fire.

Jonathan Dunne,