I Desire Compassion, Not Sacrificial Victims | Matthew 8:1—9:34

“I desire compassion, not sacrificial victims.” Last week we heard Jesus’ teaching and sermon on what the true people of god were to be about. We heard him challenge the assumptions and wisdom of everything that we hold dear and believe to be good and right. When he finished that great sermon, Jesus came down the mountain in order to show what the living of those words looked like. The first person he runs into is a person with a repulsive skin condition. Persons like this were by law outcast from society so that they would not spread their disorders and conditions—they were strictly forbidden from going into town unless a priest came out to them first and deemed them to be clean. Jesus, however, touches this man who was a victim of society’s desire to stay “clean” and then sends him into the town as a witness against the authorities.

Then Jesus comes across a Roman military officer. Jesus had just taught the love of all enemies and that in conflict one must “turn the other cheek” and not use violence, even in self-defense. Here Jesus encounters one whose whole life is predicated on violence and self-defense and yet Jesus immediately has compassion on him and his servant who had likely been wounded and paralyzed in battle. Jesus does not condemn this man, but instead reaches out with compassion and heals this victim of war.

Then Jesus goes into Peter’s home and finds his mother-in-law in bed with a fever. This woman was towards the bottom of society and yet was key to so much that went on. She is sick and because she is a lowly peasant it was easy for the culture to blame her choices in life for this condition, to make her a victim and example of what not to do or how not to live. But Jesus walks into her room and has compassion on her, curing her of her sickness that was likely the result of the great burdens she was forced to carry by her culture.

Then Jesus decides that it is time for something different. He orders his disciples to find a boat so they can cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in order that he might preach among non-Hebrews and foreigners. As soon as he gets to the other side, two extremely violent and powerful men confront him. These men represent those controlled by the spirit of the hated Roman Empire—men who were instrumental in the oppression of god’s own people. And yet Jesus has compassion on them and rescues them by throwing out the spirit that was controlling them into a herd of pigs. These pigs then charge into the sea and drown, just like Pharaoh’s army had done hundreds of years before when god rescued his people from oppression. Significantly, the pig was the symbol for the local Roman Legion, the army that held god’s people under Roman control. And so Jesus rescues these two victims that were being sacrificed in order that Rome could maintain “peace” and control over the area.

Then Jesus crosses back to Hebrew territory to his own hometown. While he is there, the crowd brings him a paralyzed man, a victim of the hard way of life that the vast majority of people lived. Jesus sees the love and compassion the crowd has for this paralyzed man and declares that he has already been forgiven and is no longer just a victim of his oppressive culture. This angers the authorities who believe that the temple is the only place forgiveness can be had. So in order to show them that they are wrong, Jesus has further compassion on this man and reverses his paralysis, saving him from his outcast state of being a symbol of what was broken and “wrong with the world.”

Traveling on from there, Jesus sees a tax collector named, Matthew, the author of this gospel, sitting at his tax booth. There Matthew would patrol the roads and businesses that went on, collecting taxes on behalf of the hated Roman Empire that was occupying the Hebrew lands. Jesus calls to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew immediately leaves everything behind, including his tax booth and job in order to be with Jesus. Many other tax collectors then join them for dinner, along with other “sinners” who were hated by Hebrew society because of how they collaborated with the Roman Empire. Angry at this, the Pharisees, who wanted to make sure their society was kept free of such scumbags, challenge what Jesus is doing. Jesus replies to them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrificial victims.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Again, Jesus is challenging the assumptions of their entire world, the very assumptions that made their governments, institutions, and economy work. This even causes the disciples of John the Baptist to come to Jesus and ask him why he is overturning their world. Jesus responds to them, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” Jesus is coming to bring something new into the world, and to try to put this new thing into old systems will only destroy everything. When the new comes, then a whole new way of living in the world is needed.

Right as he is saying this, the leader of a synagogue comes to Jesus, begging for help with his dying daughter. This is a powerful man and it is a social honor for Jesus to help him. And so Jesus has compassion on him and goes with him. But while they are going Jesus is grabbed from behind in the crowd. Jesus suddenly stops his urgent journey and begins looking for the one who grabbed him. Finding her to be a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, Jesus has compassion on her. He speaks to her and assures her that her faithfulness is rescuing her, and immediately she is healed and Jesus continues on to the house of the dying girl. As soon as they get there they find out that Jesus’ delay has made him too late—the girl is dead. But Jesus challenges this notion and says, “The girl has not died, she is only asleep.” The whole group laughs at this absurd statement, but Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand and raises her up to the astonishment of all.

Then, finally, as Jesus continues his journeying and preaching, two blind men start crying out for compassion. Jesus gives them the compassion they seek and opens their eyes to be able to see. Then a deaf-mute man is brought and Jesus enables him to listen and speak again. Seeing this kind of compassion for the “no-goods” of society, a compassion that they have never seen before, the people are utterly astonished at Jesus. The authorities, however, quickly condemn Jesus for this compassion that he is having on the victims of society’s standards and way of life, saying that Jesus is from satan himself.

“I desire compassion, not sacrificial victims.” Go and learn what this means, Jesus tells us. Mankind has a long history of creating sacrificial victims or scapegoats. We show that we are “righteous” by defining ourselves over and against others, the “sinners” of the world. We purify ourselves as a society and culture by rejecting those who aren’t “right,” “good,” or “normal.” Like all human cultures, we believe that some among us must be sacrificed as victims in order for the righteous to thrive. Somebody needs to take the blame for the breakdown in what we think our world should be. So naturally the weak among us are scapegoated and made sacrificial victims. We scapegoat everywhere—in our family dynamics, in our social hierarchies, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our global landscape. Somebody must take the fall so that we can maintain our world as we know it. So we sacrifice others, we sacrifice the weak, the disabled, the poor, the lowly, the meek, the lazy, the annoying, the weird, our enemies. We especially go after those who can’t fight back or those who refuse to do so. We take out our frustrations on them and through their suffering it makes ours go away.

The poor and the strangers and immigrants of our world have to be worked to death with virtually no compensation in order for cheap food to be produced and for the “economy” to thrive. The sick have to be rejected and outcast so that the rest of us might not get their diseases. Young men need to die in our armies in order to fight our wars and protect us from our enemies. Our enemies need to be killed in order to preserve our “freedom and way of life.” Without these victims and without their sacrifices, how could our world function? Civilization itself is built on this sacrificial victimizing—some must be sacrificed so that the rest may thrive. All the great civilizations throughout human history have been built on the backs of slaves and war victims of one form or another—lowly, not-quite-human victims must be sacrificed to do “great things.”

God himself had worked with his own people’s weakness on this by trying to limit their sacrifice to animals, which was meant to keep them from sacrificing human beings like the cultures around them. But this didn’t work and the people continued to sacrifice the strangers, orphans, widows, soldiers, diseased, and poor workers in their midst. Seeing this, the prophets repeatedly declared that sacrificial victims of any kind, even animals, were not something that god truly desired for his world and his people—sacrificing others so that we can thrive is nothing but murder.

Following in these footsteps, we find Jesus in our text standing up for sacrificial victims everywhere he goes. He welcomes them, heals them, rescues them, loves them, has compassion on them. Instead of putting the suffering of the world onto sacrificial victims, Jesus compassionately takes the suffering upon himself and calls us to do the same. We live in a world that functions by pushing suffering and violence onto others so that we might escape its clutches and live the kind of comfortable life we want. But Jesus calls us to reverse this and to embrace the suffering into ourselves so that we might alleviate the pain and the suffering of the sacrificial victims of our world that are all around us.

Our god desires compassion, not sacrificial victims. But are we willing to bear the cost of compassion? Are we willing to see Jesus take the suffering of our world upon himself and then do the very same in his memory? Or will we continue to push the suffering of our world off of ourselves onto the weak and defenseless in our midst? “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrificial victims.’” Amen.

-Pastor Luke

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