Five verses God has tattooed on my heart: #2 Matthew 9:13

I’ve often told the story of how I discovered the verse that became the basis for the title of this website. It was the summer of 2008 and I had been working at a summer camp in east Durham. The lectionary gospel readings I had heard over the previous months included Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, both of which involve Jesus quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I had been tossing this phrase around in my mind, trying to understand what it meant. Then one morning at the camp, I was given the task of waking up a homeless man in our parking lot and sending him on his way. He was very belligerent, and I was worried for my safety, so I turned to walk away. But then the homeless man said, “Where’s your fucking mercy, man?” It was the only time in my life I ever heard God drop the f-bomb, and it definitely got my attention.

Since that morning five years ago when a homeless man became my f-bomb dropping angel of the Lord, I have been on a quest to do what Jesus told the Pharisees to do in Matthew 9:13: “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus said this after the Pharisees judged Him for eating and drinking with sinners at Matthew the tax collector’s house. Within this context, Jesus seems to intend for ‘mercy’ to refer to His willingness to dine with sinners, because he says after this phrase, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The crazy thing is the context of Hosea 6:6 has nothing to do with eating and drinking with sinners.

In Hosea 6:6, God is making a statement about Israel’s betrayal and apostasy. The NRSV translates Hosea 6:6 as “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The word that gets translated ‘steadfast love’ in Hosea 6:6 is chesed. The Old Testament is filled with references to God’s chesed for His people. The reason that chesed means both ‘mercy’ and ‘steadfast love’ is because it refers to the perfectly faithful love a father has for his children even when they’ve done something wrong. Hosea 6:6 is the only place I know about where God asks for chesed from His people; almost every other reference to chesed (which are all over the psalms for instance) is something God promises to His people or something His people ask for from Him.

In any case, Hosea 6:6 has nothing to do with how you treat other people, least of all sinners. It has to do with loving God genuinely rather than just going through the motions of prescribed sacrifices; the point of the burnt offerings is to instill knowledge of God; without genuine love, they have no meaning. So Jesus is making a radical interpretive decision in Matthew 9:13 to quote Hosea 6:6 as a justification for eating and drinking with sinners. He’s saying in effect that steadfast love for God requires and is equivalent to mercy for sinners. This is completely consistent of course with Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters you have done for me.” Jesus is saying the way I know that you really love me is for you to love your neighbor, especially the neighbor you want to judge the most.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ way of relating to His Father and other people is defined in contrast to the Pharisees; it is the way of mercy versus the way of sacrifice. When our relationship to God is defined in terms of sacrifice, it is a transactional relationship. We try to figure out exactly what homage we need to “pay” God, so that God will have no choice but to reward us. Other people have no relevance in this approach to religion, except as foils to make us look better, like in the prayer that the Pharisee prays at the temple next to the tax collector: “I thank you God that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11).

The way that many suburban Christians in our day embody this Pharisee’s prayer is to define their morality in terms of what they already do well and what others (particularly the poor) seem to fail at doing. The “sacrificial” morality of suburban Christianity today is often to avoid the unholy trinity of extramarital sex, drugs, and profanity. Certainly these three are good and legitimate things to avoid, but the question is whether we are avoiding them in order to become merciful, per Matthew 9:13 or in order to have a basis for being pleased with ourselves and an excuse not to be merciful to people we deem less moral than us.

If God desires mercy and not sacrifice, then the pursuit of holiness is a means to an end and not an end unto itself. Yes, we absolutely should avoid all the world’s idols, addictions, and bad habits, but only so that we can focus our undistracted energy on sharing God’s mercy with others. Those who prefer sacrifice to mercy are often pitting love of God against love of neighbor, something the Israelites did time and time again in the Old Testament, necessitating the prophets’ continual reminders, like Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

God doesn’t want perfect people to spend eternity with Him; God wants people who have truly accepted His mercy and thus accepted His demand to show mercy to others. James 2:12-13 is an important expression of this principle: “Speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” We do not have a fastidiously perfectionist God who is impossible to please; we have a God whose main concern is showing solidarity to the most vulnerable of His creatures and thus will not accept anyone except as recipients of His mercy who are willing to be obedient to that mercy and don’t have any delusion about circumventing this obedience through sacrifice.

16 thoughts on “Five verses God has tattooed on my heart: #2 Matthew 9:13

  1. Pingback: My duty to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I do not have creativity. To state that their are other interpretations voids Amos 3:3 and other verses that speak unity. Jesus did not come to bring peace but the sword. I have the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 He is the spirit of God who teaches me all things. To dismiss it as creativity is to dismiss prophecy. It mocks the possibility that you are entertaining an angel or prophet.. God tells us He is a jealous God. A jealous God or person loves to have focus on one thing. Themselves. God is constantly trying to allow us to see His Son. In turn, see Him. His desire is for us to imitate Him. That is the epitomy of jealousy The Word is to bring Glory to God through Jesus Christ. Anything we do is menstral rags to Him. That is why people turn from Him. We are told to do all things in secret, people dont want to do that. They want recognition. They have Their selfish desire to feed. Satan feeds on it. It is interpretation, not creative. Praise God for the chance for fellowship and revelation

    • This is a non-sequitur. God desires mercy not sacrifice. Jesus is a part of that, sure. But you can’t dismiss the direct meaning of the text and say oh, it’s just all about Jesus.

  3. In Hosea 6:6. God desires His Son. In Matthew 9:13. JESUS is talking of Himself. He tells us here as His Father has already told us, in Hosea. We are to imitate Jesus Christ. In Galatians 3:25-26. We are told through faith we are all sons of God through Jesus Christ. If we imitate Christ through faith, God sees what He desires. HIS SON. You.

    • That’s a creative interpretation but I don’t think it’s the only interpretation of Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13.

  4. I was touched by your “Ah-ha ” moment at the camp when the leaders asked you to wake up the homeless man and send him off. I agree, WHERE IS OUR MERCY? When a group won’t help someone who is hungry and cold because that “undesirable” is not part of the fellowship, group, member of the church, etc, etc…
    Each and every one of these suffering, lost souls ARE part of OUR GROUP and we misrepresent CHrist when we don’t love our brother and show him mercy and grace. Jesus would not have asked you to send him on his way. Jesus would have had you go out and invite him to join you for breakfast, would have given him ALL the money in His pocket, the coat off his back, given him a warm place to sleep, asked him what he needed, provided what was available, and prayed with him as a brother for the rest. There are so many out there who have felt the heel of a Christian’s boot instead of the warmth of a human heart. Let us strive to be like Jesus!

  5. Pingback: Seven Obnoxious Jesus Jukes (Re-Post from “Mercy not Sacrifice”) | Liberty for Captives

  6. Pingback: Seven obnoxious Jesus jukes | Mercy not Sacrifice

  7. I go to a suburban church in Texas. It’s much like you describe. I find myself often disgusted with what seems to be a worship of morality. The problem is I get all self-righteous in my judgement of their judgement. Then I just feel bad because I know they are struggling to understand how to live the “Christian life” just like I am. So what I’ve been learning lately is that I need to be merciful to the “pretty perfect Christians” that I often feel animosity towards.

    The further along I get the more I understand why we need Jesus. Even my “righteous” deeds are clothed in selfish gain.

    Interesting post. Thanks.

    • Around here I am more disgusted that there seems to be a “worship” of church activity involvement. I should say I was disgusted, now I am more saddened, especially because that was me not long ago. Also Im not convinced that many are “struggling to understand how to live the Christian life”, not that I need to be convinced., but it seems as more people are content to let the Pastor figure that out for me and I have done my duty if I participate in 2 or 3 of those activities a year. Again, Im not “judging” them. Satans standard trick is to go “you’re judging, you’re no better” which is true in a sense, it all depends on your motive for the “judgment”. a heart to criticize and puff ourselves up? or a heart to rescue those from what they cannot see.

    • Self-justification is something we have to spend a lifetime stomping out. I am still learning how to be merciful to those who I tend to caricature.

  8. And therein lies the reason God made us creature that need the fellowship of others. It seems as though the standard Christian thing to say is “I know I shouldnt crave human attention or recognition, I should just be satisfied writing for God.” That sounds great but its not true. God knows that we wont always feel close to Him like we will to real flesh and blood people. His spirit lives inside of all of us for a reason, so we can speak encouragement and prayer and blessings and thanks into each others lives. So yeah, I think its tough to not want human attention and recognition, because we were never designed to not need it. We DO need it, and people like me just need to be better at giving it.

    Regarding your temptations and fears, just rest in the fact that His Spirit is inside of you. You and He are one. Its not you wrestling and fretting forever and wondering if what you wrote is of God. Its going for it and trusting that if you are walking in the light then you are speaking along side of Him. He gave you the gift to write well, and I for one am blessed by it.

    God I pray for continued and constant revelation of your love and will for Morgan and the gifts you’ve given him. Give him the courage to write when it seems words could be harsh, and the wisdom to write when tender ones are called for. I thank you that you are opening the eyes of those blinded by religion. Help me always realize that I was in the same boat as some of those that my flesh wants to criticize. More than anything though, show me the way to live out these revelations and not just use them to stimulate my own brain.

  9. One thing i dont do well enough is to thank people. If I were you and wrote like you and took time to pour my heart out, I would wander if it really mattered. Well, Im telling you now, it matters. I dont know who you are or what you do, but the words that youve written in this post and on your blog and have shown me that although I can see better than I used to, Im still not 20/20, and thats not disappointing to me, its exciting! I was so blinded by religion and legalism and only one “true” interpretation of the Bible. Its only when you can see a little differently that you realize that you had no idea you were blind…. So thats one person youve touched, but I’ve emailed links to others and discussed my clearer vision of God in Christ with others still.

    God thank you for leading me to the words from Morgan that are evidence of your Spirit still at work today in him and me. Bless him and continue to pour out your understanding and love on us all.

    • Wow, thank you so much for your encouragement and your prayer. I had been getting a little discouraged because my most recent series just about scripture that has changed my life hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as when I write about the “hot topics” which I always feel cheap and dirty doing. God knew I needed to hear what you had to say. Please also pray that I would seek his truth for its sake alone, not for my glory, not to be polemical or vindictive against other Christians, not to scratch the itching ears of whatever is trendy in hipster Christianity. I need so much prayer. There are many temptations.

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