At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday after Pentecost, Eve of the Fast of St. Gregory the Enlightener), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
The Priority of Mercy
Did Jesus break the rules? Or were the Pharisees nitpicking? What was their main issue with Jesus? This isn’t the only time Jesus was accused of dishonoring the Sabbath (see John 5:1-18, 7:19-24, 9:1-41). By performing miracles and healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus challenged the norm, the priorities of the Pharisees, and what the Sabbath had become – just another rule to be followed even if at the cost of loving others. In other words, the Sabbath had become a reflection of the heart of the Pharisees – sacrifice and not mercy.
Jesus reminds the Pharisees that priests guiltlessly break the Sabbath whenever they carry out their Temple duties. He then recalls the event of David when he ate the Bread of Presence (Leviticus 24:9) in the house of God, bread that was set apart only for the priests (I Samuel 21:1-6). In essence, the Pharisees, an unofficial, rigid Jewish group intended on purifying Israel through intense observation of the Law, were questioning who Jesus was. After all, Jesus was not a priest, party member, nor did he behave like a typical rabbi. By providing Old Testament examples of violations of the Sabbath, Jesus makes it clear that the law is not absolute over human need, or service to God. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus teaches that mercy takes precedence over regulations, rituals, customs, and traditions. He came in order to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), the law which speaks of and points to him. The Sabbath, like all of the law, ordinances, and observances, are a means to a much greater and holier End – the person of Jesus Christ.
If the Pharisees still didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at, he gets even more precise by citing the prophet Hosea (6:6) and invites the Pharisees to learn what “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” really means. This is not a rejection of sacrifice, but a matter of priority. David, in one of the most quoted Psalms in the Armenian Church (50/51), writes something similar to the verse in Hosea:
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (vv. 16-17)
Or translated from the Armenian Bible:
If you wanted us to offer sacrifices, we would. But you had no use for our animal sacrifices. The sacrifice to God is a humble spirit. God will not reject a pure heart and a humble spirit. (trans. Bishop Daniel Findikyan)
In other words, God is not impressed with us going through the motions, or our flawless performance. A sacrifice that is not given from the right heart is empty and meaningless. It’s not the sacrifice itself that Jesus is looking for, rather all of our sacrifices should be offered from a place of mercy and humility, and if all of our customs, traditions, and rituals do not bring us closer to God, then why bother?
St. Cyril of Alexandria, referring to the Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, writes,
For where nothing great or noble happens, the Pharisees remain quiet. But where they see certain people being healed, they are more offended than anyone else.
Do we share the attitude of the Pharisees? Do we offer sacrifice but neglect mercy? Are we quick to judge, nitpick, quote policy and rules to the detriment of relationships and the peace and unity of Christ in the Church? Or do we do the opposite and resist or ignore guidelines and structure which exists for our communal benefit, and claim they are getting in the way of mercy? Again, this is not an either/or situation, but a matter of the heart, a matter of priority. The sacrifice that he is looking for is us, our entire being. As St. Paul writes to the Romans,
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (12:1)
Our end, our highest accomplishment is not the building of a parish or cathedral, the performance of the Badarak, the form of our ritual, the cleanliness of Armenian spoken in a sermon, the perpetuating of our tradition, or the survival of our race. All of that is aiming much too low. God calls us much higher. How do these things help us to know God more, love others more, to live a life of mercy (nղորմութիւն) showing charity, practical care, and serving others with compassion? Jesus is calling us to a deep level of communion, a sharing of his divine life, his love, a life wherein our goal and end is Christ himself and imitating his mercy.
May the following prayer of St. Gregory of Narek be in our hearts and on our lips whenever we do the work of the Lord in the world, in our parish communities, and in our own lives:
And now, compassionate God, I pray for your mercy, as you instructed in your own words, “Make offerings in the name of God’s salvation and you shall be made holy, for I want contrition not sacrifice.” Be exalted anew in remembrance of this offering in incense, for everything is in you, and everything is from you. (4D)
St. Nerses the Great
Whether it was in one significant moment, or demonstrated over the course of their lives, the saints of the Church are those individuals who learned what Jesus meant when he said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Sts. Nune and Mane, both of whom arrived as companions of St. Hripsime, sacrificed marriage and family life in order to devote their lives to God and the ministry of others. Their faith was an authentic faith, not one that went through the motions. Rather than spending time on petty nitpicking, they prayed, obeyed God’s will, converted others, and got to know their God.
To this day, St. Nerses the Great (Սուրբ Ներսէս Մեծ), the great-grandson of St. Gregory the Enlightener, remains as the Armenian Church’s model of charity and mercy. St. Nerses was asked to become Catholicos while he was still a layperson. In the year 353, within a few months, he was ordained as a deacon, priest, bishop and elected Catholicos at the young age of 24. St. Nerses connected the Church with the common people by providing assistance apart from the government, using resources and land from the Armenian Church. From 364-365, St. Nerses convened the Council of Ashdishad, the first council of bishops in Armenia, at which he addressed numerous concerns regarding family life, marriage laws, social conditions, and monasticism. Over his lifetime, he had over two thousand monasteries built. Out of compassion for the needs of his people and based on biblical principles and teachings, St. Nerses established schools, hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the poor, homes for the elderly, and guesthouses for pilgrims. Like Jesus, he would spend time and eat at the same table with the poor and socially dejected. He even invited the elderly, sick, and poor into his own home for refuge and to be cared for by him personally. He stood against any threat that would try to usurp or remove the Christian faith of Armenia.
Through his unprecedented efforts as Catholicos from 353 – 373, St. Nerses drastically changed the livelihood of the Armenian people for the better, and paved the way to the Golden Age initiated by Sts. Sahag and Mesrob. What compelled St. Nerses to achieve these accomplishments? His priority was mercy for others. He obeyed what Jesus taught about mercy and sacrifice, imitating his ministry. How do we measure our accomplishments in the Church? As members of the Armenian Church, as members of a parish community, how can we follow the example of St. Nerses the Great? What are the needs that need to be addressed in our local community, in the families that make up our community? With works of mercy, what can we build together in order to build the Church for peace and unity in Christ? Start small if needed, with much prayer, and through us God’s boundless mercy will touch the world.