“Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13). There is not an exhortation in the whole of scripture that needs more desperately to be pondered by Christians today than this sentence that Jesus says to the Pharisees after they criticize him for associating with sinners. Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, which he does again in Matthew 12:7 when the Pharisees criticize him for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. No other Old Testament verse is quoted twice in the same gospel in conversation with the same people. Jesus is making a critical distinction between His way (mercy) and the Pharisees’ way (sacrifice). The reason Christians need to let this verse smack us in the face is that we have become the Pharisees Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being.
In the summer of 2008, I was interning at a church in downtown Durham, NC. That summer, both Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7 came up in our gospel readings two weeks apart, which piqued my interest. At the time, we were collaborating with another church to hold a summer camp for disadvantaged children. One morning, there was a homeless man asleep in the parking lot. The ladies from the church asked me to wake the man up and send him on his way, so I tapped him on the shoulder and he went ballistic, cussing and threatening me in a demonic rage. I figured I should move away, so I turned around to leave and then the Lord spoke to me in a way that makes me tremble to this day. The homeless man said, “Where’s your fucking mercy, man?” Even though God dropped the f-bomb, it was one of the holiest moments I’ve experienced. In obedience to God’s command, I sat on the ground in front of the homeless man, determined to let him hit me or do whatever he was going to do to me. Then Julius, a volunteer from the church, came and tried talking gently to the homeless man who screamed the word !@#$%^&* at him several dozen times. It was the first time I’d ever seen a black person called that word to his face, but Julius never flinched or wavered in his gentleness. The police had to be called, but Julius kept his cool the entire time. And I realized that he was embodying the way of mercy God had wanted me to witness.
Since God got my attention four summers ago, I have been trying to find out what it means that God desires mercy rather than sacrifice. Both times Jesus quoted the verse in response to the way Pharisees had used their sacrifices (dissociating with sinners, avoiding “work” on the Sabbath) as the basis for judging other people. And when I look at our society today, I see the same dynamic at work, among, for instance, middle-upper-class Christians who see their sexual chastity as a sacrifice which gives them the right not to worry about poor people whose plight is the product of sexual immorality. In addition, our culture teaches us that people who pay their dues by suffering through law school or medical school or business school deserve to make oodles and oodles more money than all the lazy kids who didn’t sacrifice sufficiently in high school or college to get good grades. Furthermore, if I sacrifice an extravagant lifestyle and save up my money, then I earn the right to hoard my wealth and not feel bad about my selfishness. Being stingy and severe with myself becomes the reason why I shouldn’t have to be generous to other people. What American evangelicals call morality is thoroughly shaped by sacrifice. Through our abstinence from sex, drugs, worldly music, bad words, and biology textbooks, we gain the mandate to be the world’s critics, just like the Pharisees who judged Jesus.
A more subtle form of sacrifice occurs in our conception of God’s nature. When people make God into a Santa Claus of cheap grace, it’s obvious that they’re worshiping a God of their own creation. But there’s also a hidden appeal to a God who is severe and capricious enough that worshiping Him constitutes an intellectual sacrifice. When we hear week after week about a God who is really angry with (most of) humanity, we get a double benefit because we can congratulate ourselves on sitting through a “tough sermon” which is really just an affirmation of the harshness with which we view other people. In the parable of the talents, the servant who buried his talent in the mud justifies his action by saying, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed” (Matt 25:24). In the same way, the fake “sacrifice” of making our God into a “hard man” who hates the world leaves us in a comfortable nihilism with respect to the world’s problems. We can bury the call to establish His kingdom on Earth and focus all our energy on keeping our own castle “family safe and kid friendly.”
But what does it look like if our lives are shaped by mercy rather than sacrifice? In his book, The Principle of Mercy, Jon Sobrino explores Jesus’ Good Samaritan story. He observes that the Samaritan stopped, not “to comply with a commandment, but only because he was moved by mercy” (26). The difference between the Samaritan and the priest and the Levite was not that he had better ethical principles or a more disciplined set of daily spiritual practices than they did. He was just a person whose heart could be moved by mercy. Whatever daily sacrifices the priest and Levite were making as part of their religion had not carved enough space in their hearts for compassion. In fact, their sacrifices probably substituted for mercy. The same dialectic occurs in the story of the prodigal son in which the older brother’s sacrifice-engendered entitlement becomes the reason he hates his father’s mercy.
Mercy and sacrifice produce completely different conceptions of holiness. Under the paradigm of sacrifice, holiness has to do with proving my fidelity to God. It is about showing God that I love Him enough to go without food for a day, slaughter a bull, or donate $5 million to my church’s capital campaign. None of these are wrong per se, but when holiness is understood according to sacrifice, it has to do with loving God to the exclusion of loving my neighbor. The ancient Israelite prophets constantly harped on their people for trying to pit love of God against love of neighbor:
“The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals… Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” [Isaiah 1:11, 17]
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?… He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:7-8]
In contrast, a paradigm of mercy understands holiness as the perfect integration of the two components of Jesus’ Great Commandment exemplified in the words of 1 John 4:12: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Loving God and loving neighbor can never be separated; each is always already assumed in the authentic exercise of the other. The goal of the holiness we practice in praying, fasting, singing praise songs, donating blood, making meals for homeless people, and every other possible act of piety and mercy is not to prove anything to God (sacrifice) but to give God’s love complete dominion over our hearts (mercy). John Wesley used the term “Christian perfection” to describe the complete saturation of God’s love in the human heart that is the asymptotic ideal towards which the arc of holiness strives. The Samaritan is not merely an exemplar of compassion but of holiness as well, because obedience to the Holy Spirit is not measured by the stringency of our sacrifices but the degree to which God’s mercy can move us.
It is true that sacrifice can be extremely beneficial when it is a means of submitting ourselves more completely to God’s mercy. Fasting for example can teach us to be weak and dependent on God to help us battle our terrible enemy, pride. But if God desires mercy instead of sacrifice, then we can expect the commands He gives us in the Bible not to be arbitrary loyalty tests that “glorify Him” in a way that has nothing to do with mercy. Rather, it’s reasonable to assume that what He tells us to do has the ultimate purpose of removing every obstacle to the reign of His mercy in our hearts and over all things.