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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon

25th June 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity V

'Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy not sacrifice."'
Mt. 9.13

The Parable Of The Old Man
And The Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they journeyed both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son-
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is well known and disturbing, especially to those of us who have sons. It is also comforting and reassuring God does not require sacrifice, he provides.

Back in the 1960's many theologians questioned the use of sacrificial language as outmoded and off putting in the modern age. In part that was a reaction to the use of sacrificial language in make sense of the slaughter of WWI. War poet Wilfred Owen who thought of becoming a parson before the war destroyed his faith, sensed the difficulty. In his poem 'The parable of the old man and the young' Owen quotes from the AV version of the Genesis story.

By July 1918 when the poem was written talk of sacrifice was wearing thin. Pride he felt was standing in the way of peace. Old men in power preferred the sacrifice of sons (half the seed of Europe) to that of their pride. Such views were controversial then and remain so still. A balance has to be struck between the comfort derived from such language and its excessive use to justify continuing war & conflict.

Sadly I am not so sure about that liberal view of sacrificial language. Talk of sacrifice runs deep within the human psyche. There is a primeval tendency in humanity toward blood letting. During the week there was a disturbing before and after picture of a young girl suicide bomber whose bomb failed to go off. The pictures caught her elation as she pressed the detonator and her despair when it failed to explode. In her, the emotions that most of us would feel were reversed. Here a daughter of Abraham (Moslem) still felt that sacrifice was demanded of her in the Palestinian struggle against Israel (Jewish sons & daughters of Abraham).

The story of Abraham And Isaac poses difficulties for us because God put Abraham to the test. That seems cruel to us, brutal for Isaac in his trusting innocence. Of course the point is that Abraham was willing to offer everything such was his faith in God.

It is however the Christian use of the story that is problematic for some. God in such a view sacrifices his own son Jesus, for us. The sacrifice of Isaac is seen as the ante type of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Certainly the NT sees Jesus' death in that way, although it has to be noted that Jesus freely offers himself.

My own view is that is difficult to do justice to the cross without use of sacrificial language even if we may wish to qualify and moderate our use of such terms. God does not need a sacrifice because in Christ he offers himself.

That takes us back to those words of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel; 'Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy not sacrifice."' They form part of story of the call of Matthew.

I came across a map of the male spiritual journey by the Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. In it he says how the older man has to learn the truth of Jesus' words. In youth, sacrifice of self instead of mercy is the dominant drive. In the second half of life it is to be reversed. Accepting limitation we need to be merciful to self and others. That I suspect is what Abraham learnt on Mt. Moriah.

In today's Gospel, coming after the story of Abraham and Isaac and the theological complexity of Romans, Jesus urges his followers to practice hospitality. Mercy is to be offered and received in the giving of a cup of cold water, a beautiful image in the heat of midsummer and surely a better gesture for Christian, Moslem and Jew than the sacrifice of the suicide bomber.


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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at Last updated 25/06/2005 09:30 Author: David Shepherd