Tax collectors and other outcasts had gathered in Matthew’s house for a feast. In the center of the hubbub, Jesus and his followers reclined at the dinner table. Noticing Jesus’s presence among such riffraff, the Pharisees scoffed. How could Jesus consider himself a rabbi and party with such a disreputable bunch? So they pulled a few of Jesus’s converts aside and huffed, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10).
Overhearing their question, Jesus responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (v. 12). The religious leaders’ blindness astounded him. How could he reveal God’s love to these folks if he didn’t hang out with them?
Jesus then admonished the Pharisees. “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (v. 13). He was quoting the prophet Hosea, who, centuries earlier, had condemned the Jews for attempting to excuse their idolatry and their oppression of the poor by offering the prescribed animal sacrifices.
God always values “mercy” over “sacrifice.” But what exactly does that mean?
The Difference between Mercy and Sacrifice
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, many of us seek opportunities to engage in what we consider acts of mercy. We may help to prepare and serve a turkey dinner at a soup kitchen. Or we may participate in a coat drive for the homeless, fill a shoebox with gifts, or build a wheelchair ramp for a disabled veteran. But are these acts of kindness what Jesus truly meant when he challenged us to learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice?
I don’t think so.
When my husband and I moved to North Carolina, a friend invited me to join her cook team at the local soup kitchen. Initially, I went because I thought the experience would be good for me—make me more aware of my blessings and increase my compassion for those less fortunate.
Why? Notice the prominence of me, my, and I in the above sentence. My acts of sacrifice were all about me.
As the months passed, my attitude changed. Seeing some of the same folks in the serving line twice a month led to conversations. “How are you feeling this week, Marie? Is your cold gone?” “Have your new meds made it easier for you to sleep at night, Raymond?” “When are they going to do that surgery on your finger, Buddy?”
A few months later, I started giving the pre-lunch devotion once a month. Before I blessed the food, I asked for prayer requests. Listening to what was on people’s hearts drew me closer to them. Praying for them planted their needs and concerns in my heart.
I made sure Billy got a can of the Mountain Dew he preferred, and I reminisced with Barbara who grew up in my hometown. I chatted with Donnie when I cut his meat because he couldn’t do it with his misshapen right hand. The so-glad-to-see-yous and the hugs multiplied.
What happened? I developed relationships. These folks became dear to me. Going to the soup kitchen wasn’t an act of sacrifice; it was a place where I hung out with people I cared about.
Mercy and Relationships
In Matthew 9, the Pharisees looked around Matthew’s house and saw nameless “tax collectors” and “sinners.” Jesus saw people he cared about, people he wanted to hang out with.
And he knew their names.
When we view what we do in Jesus’s name as faceless sacrifices, we’ve missed the whole concept of “love as I have loved you” (John 13:34). It’s all personal with Jesus. It’s all about relationships.
So many ministries and organizations vie for our time, money, and interest. Not even a millionaire could help them all. But if we truly want to move beyond sacrifice to mercy—as Jesus calls us to do—we need to get our heart involved with at least one of those ministries or organizations. We need to develop relationships with people—people with names and stories, joys and sorrows, prayer requests and praises. Otherwise, I don’t think we’ll ever understand what Jesus meant by “mercy, not sacrifice.”
Part of the problem is that mercy sounds too much like pity to us. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mercy as “compassion or forbearance”—words that convey a certain condescension: Aren’t I something, helping out this person who’s less fortunate than I am?
Jesus never responded to people with that attitude, even though he, the sinless Son of God, was indeed stooping to their level. Instead, he placed himself in a position—as he did in Matthew’s house—of reaching across the table, of treating each person with respect and dignity.
I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice
Jesus longs for us to move beyond the idea of sacrifice—what we feel obligated to give up to be perceived as religious. He wants us to get our hearts involved, tangled up with other people’s lives, so the word sacrifice drops out of our vocabulary, so that all we know is the passion to love others as he loves us.
Jesus ate with Matthew and his friends because he wanted to. He loved them. I envision laughter, jokes, backslapping, and joy. Especially joy.
The Pharisees couldn’t conceive of that kind of camaraderie between the pious and the publicans, the upright and the upended, the moral and the maligned. But Jesus didn’t label people. So he loved Nicodemus as genuinely as he loved Zacchaeus, and Mary of Bethany as he loved Mary Magdalene. He always looked beyond a person’s history toward a person’s future.
I’m asking God to move me toward that kind of love. I want to be as comfortable at a table of ex-cons and alcoholics as I am with church folk. I don’t want to be satisfied with hands-on rituals. I want God to move me toward “hearts-in” mercy, Jesus’ mercy.
How about you? Are you willing to move beyond once-a-year, suitable-for-the-occasion sacrifices toward year-round, inconvenient mercy and love that build relationships? Ask Jesus to give you a hearts-in ministry.