Recently the topic of mercy was floated to me for a short sermon I was to give at our neighborhood church gathering. As I was prayerfully considering an appropriate scripture passage that addressed mercy I came upon Matthew 9:9-13 and it kind of took me aback when I read it. It wasn’t so much the scene of Jesus dining with the reprobates of his day or even when he subversively sticks it to the Pharisees, but the particular phrase “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” there immediately popped out to me. Not because it’s out of step with what we would expect Jesus to say but because it was out of step with how I so often go about life. Jesus challenges the pharisees (who tend to be a little proud) that he is not just a teacher but THE teacher and maybe they don’t have things squared away the way they think they do. He says “Go and learn what this means”. So I said, ok Jesus. Let me learn what this means. And as so often happens when we bother to look just a little deeper into the word of God a whole world of meaning and truth unfolds before us. So, let’s look at how mercy runs to us and through us so that Christ’s desires become our desires.
“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”
To set the background, before we get to this point in the in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been making his way around preaching, performing miracles and gathering disciples. He was healing people, casting out demons, calming raging storms. He was making a big impact. Crowds were following him places. He was even kind of freaking some people out you know. A lot of these encounters ended with people in awe and many were afraid because of what they had seen. Some of them even asked him to leave. This was a different kind of teacher doing very different things. And the name of Jesus is spreading and word of what he is doing and saying is making its way around the region.
So we come to this section in Matthew 9 and Jesus does something controversial again; he calls Matthew to follow him. You see, Matthew was a tax collector where he most likely engaged in the practice of basically extorting money from his fellow citizens for personal profit. And we find Jesus at the dinner table with Matthew and his friends. He’s not with the social elites and influencers of the day but with the reviled and outcast. People who the pharisees considered the worst type of sinner. Untouchable lest their sin rub off on you. Here is Jesus, not just talking, but eating with them. Sharing a meal, an intimate moment. To which the pharisees rebuff and confront the disciples saying “Why is your teacher eating with these sinners?” It was offensive to them. He was a rabbi, a teacher, a holy man and here he is in this intimate setting socializing with the worst of the worst when they had spent their whole lives trying to distance themselves from sinners and the appearance of sin like this.
The Pharisees dotted every I and crossed every T of the law in their life in an attempt to be right before God. So much that they even put extra layers of rules on top of rules as protection in case they accidentally slipped up. And they see Jesus and they’re licking their chops. What are you going to say now Jesus? And Jesus hears their question and understanding it as the objection that it is, he proceeds to reframe the entire interaction. Because here in this man, Christ is the very heart of God confronting the cultural norms of the day. He turns everything on its head.
The Pharisees were supposed to be learned men but Jesus says. “Go and learn what this means” like, hey, you’re acting like you’ve got this nailed but you’ve got it all wrong. He says, “go and learn what this means: ’I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He’s juxtaposing the Pharisees patting themselves on the back for their adherence to the rules, for all the sacrifices they make. And he contrasts it with his mission which is mercy and healing. “I desire mercy.” Mercy here in the Greek is compassion towards someone, but Jesus is actually quoting from Hosea, who uses a Hebrew word that communicates something even deeper, it means ‘steadfast love’ toward those in need. And this is what stopped me in my tracks when I read it. Had I resolved the answers of how to live life long ago and now I’m just riding that auto-pilot to eternity or am I hanging on the words of Christ, letting them challenge me, give me life, renewing my thoughts day by day.
“when our desire is not aligned with God’s desire we always end up questioning God and falling back to our comfortable rituals”
Because when I ride that auto-pilot, “the sacrifice”, my little rituals, become the thing that makes me right before God in my head and I’ve lost his mercy all together. And I don’t end up asking God “Should you really be doing that” like the Pharisees do, but instead something more like “do you really want me to do that?” And he flips it and he says Preston!, I love you, follow me. Align your desires with my desires. You see, when our desire is not aligned with God’s desire we always end up questioning God and falling back to our comfortable rituals. What does that look like for you? For me it looks like always knowing the right things to do, checking those things off my list and feeling better when they are done. And that’s great for a task list at work, but Christ is calling us to love people and that method doesn’t work very well when I apply it to a person made in God’s image. It usually results in a cold and uncaring interaction on my part where someone isn’t receiving the grace and love of Christ through me, but might end up feeling like exactly what I’m using them for, which is a means to the end of my feeling better about myself.
Our south neighborhood church shares a ministry to our neighbors at the Manchaca 2 community. Its a community that if I’m honest I would probably never have set foot in if it were not for our church’s involvement there. I have a pretty comfortable life in my little cul-de-sac. Why would God call me to M2? ‘do you really want me to do that?’ He calls me there like he has called all of us there because he has the same steadfast love for our neighbors as he does for us. See, the question is, is the steadfast love of God running through you to the hurting and the sick, or have you turned God’s desire for mercy into a ritualistic check list for your own peace of mind? Has his steadfast love stopped with conversion and now you are running on autopilot, refusing to show mercy to the marginalized and poor? Or are you showing up, and like a Pharisee congratulating yourself for “showing mercy” when you are actually checking a box and maybe judging others?
Jesus did something truly revolutionary when he sat down with sinners. When they rubbed shoulders with him, they were brought from the margins to the center of God’s steadfast love. And at the cross, our self-righteous sin, or false mercy or lack of mercy rubs off on Jesus, and dies for our sin to draw us from the margins in the center of his steadfast love. So let’s receive God’s mercy. Christ came for sinners. That’s you, that’s me, that’s our neighbors, friends and family. In his eternal mercy, his steadfast love, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross. The ultimate act of mercy and love. And he calls us, not to dead rituals but to new life in him, with renewed desires everyday. So that every day we can say, I will follow you.