But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus of Nazareth
This utterance from Jesus in Matthew 9:13 gets a lot of mileage these days. People are fond of quoting His statement whenever they think someone is being judgmental. Regardless of the issue, some people seem to feel that you should never have an opinion or concern about certain matters of conscience. For instance, if I say that I disagree with a particular course of action, I am arrogant and bigoted and completely out of step with the message of Jesus. Because Jesus preached love and acceptance and kindness.
Jesus certainly preached all that, and more. Of course, it is important for our understanding to view that verse in Matthew in the larger context in which Jesus spoke. He had been criticized for hanging out with “undesirables” by the self-satisfied religious leaders of the day. So, in response to their smug self-righteousness, He quoted the first half of Hosea 6:6, and told them to go read it and get a clue (loose translation!). The remainder of that verse tells us the LORD desires …the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. So, it is obvious that the Eternal One is far more concerned with us knowing Him, and acting like Him, than He is with our religious activity.
It is also important to note that Jesus quoted the prophet after mentioning that it is sick people who need a doctor, not the healthy. So, Jesus clearly knew that the people He hung out with needed help. He wasn’t trying to intimate that their lives were all happy and healthy and acceptable. He did, however, look past outward appearances and offer His love and acceptance to the broken and guilty and oppressed, because they were created in God’s image. He was aware of their need for mercy and forgiveness. He didn’t try to pretend they were OK just the way they were. He spoke to their deepest desires, to hidden places within, and offered them a more genuine and fulfilling way of existence.
The kind of people He wasn’t so eager to spend time with were those who claimed to not need forgiveness. After all, if they weren’t sick, they didn’t need a doctor.
Spiritual sickness requires a spiritual cure. Healing begins with repentance, which is recognition that the way we are living is not producing flourishing life, but instead bondage and sorrow. With that recognition, we turn to God and humbly admit that we need to change the direction of our lives.
Jesus also tells us to genuinely release mercy, which requires humility on our part. It requires that we understand there is no “us/them” dichotomy. We realize that all of us are sinners as we face an ineffably holy God. I cannot claim to be better than someone else because I don’t act the way they do; I am in need of God’s mercy as much—probably more—than the next person. This understanding springs from true repentance. Hopefully, if we recognize that we have been forgiven much, we love much and gratefully release mercy to others.
So this really is the context and the meaning of Jesus’ statement. He is not telling us that we can never disagree with someone or point out that their choices are causing them pain. Jesus did it all the time. But our thinking is twisted if we begin with the idea that we are somehow innately morally superior. It is equally twisted if we take the position that “anything goes”, that everyone should be allowed to determine truth and societal standards for themselves. There is a far better, healthier and more life-affirming posture we can take than either of those.
As we interact with people who are different than us, and as we consider the consequences of actions and ideologies blasting their way into our present culture, it is helpful to remember that issues viewed from God’s perspective should often be approached with an attitude of “both/and” as opposed to “either/or.” (There are definitely exceptions, of course. Jesus’ words to the Laodicean Church immediately come to mind). Writer Katelyn Beaty illustrates this beautifully:
…Christians of both conservative and progressive stripes will be tempted to add a but to their articulation of love. Instead, what if the church chose to consistently speak a message of “Love, and…”?
You are loved, and you are welcome in this church, no matter your past or present.
You are loved, and you are joining a community of nothing more or less than saved sinners.
You are loved, and that love is so total and complete that it changes all of us from the inside out.
You are loved, and it might take time for you to recognize and live fully into that love, as it does for all of us.
You are loved, and that love leads us to repentance, over and over, for God is exceedingly patient and wants no one to perish.
You are loved, and nothing is going to change that.
This is God-sized love, and God-breathed love. This is the love expressed in the Prodigal Son parable. It is love that always hopes and believes, always reaches out, always forgives, always accepts and cleanses. As Katelyn noted, it “…changes all of us from the inside out.”
Most of us have heard the expression “love the sinner, hate the sin.” The problem with that idea is that, if we begin there, it becomes difficult to maintain a proper perspective as we involve ourselves in others’ lives. We tend to focus on “hatred of the sin”—how wretched, dirty, nasty, untouchable it is. By focusing on the filth, we start feeling contaminated by it, and then eventually by the very presence of the other person. We start musing that we are really cleaner and better than this wretch in front of us. Inside we think: I’m not like you. The Apostle Paul had no such problem, however. With wonderful clarity and humility, he was able to tell us that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. He wasn’t being metaphoric. In his mind, there was no “us/them” barrier; we have all been sinners in need of mercy from a holy God, and Paul rejoiced that he was forgiven and made clean, since he had been the worst of all. He was thoroughly convinced that anyone could be forgiven and made new by the power of Christ.
So, “loving the sinner, but hating the sin” sounds like a good idea, until we realize that our Lord always speaks to the identity a person can know in Him—our true identity, the person He made us to be. Anytime we self-identify with any characteristic of the flesh, we are already on the wrong path. Scripture calls us to submit to God and hate evil—every form of it—but it isn’t helpful to focus on the way it is embodied in fellow humans. We are capable of performing despicable acts of wickedness, it is true. But these acts are performed by unique individuals whom God loves, who were created in His image, meant to live lives of wondrous purpose and righteous fruitfulness, as they flourish under God’s care and direction. When that destiny and identity is perverted, even by their own vile choices, our hatred and disgust should be directed at satan and at all sin—including our own.
At the end, every one of us will face our Creator and give account for our lives. The pure fire of His presence will obliterate any false identity we have tried to construct within and around ourselves. Ezekiel was one who experienced just a glimpse of God’s majesty and he describes his encounter like this:
And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD (Ezekiel 1:26-28).
The beloved Apostle John, near the end of his life on the isle of Patmos, encountered the risen Jesus and described Him as follows:
…I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, our of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead….(Revelation 1:12-17).
There are many other awe-inspiring descriptions of Him, written by people given the opportunity to come into contact with the Living, Eternal, Holy Creator. This is the Being before Whom we will one day stand. Our identity must be found in our true selves, given us by God, restored by Jesus through His death and resurrection. Any identity based on human flesh or reasoning will be vaporized on that Day when we give account.
In the famous poem Invictus, William Ernest Henley wrote “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” That may be true for a short season, while we dwell on this earth. Often, I am in charge of my own fate. Until I am not. One day I will discover that I needed mercy, but on that Day, it will be too late. That is why I am given the option to humble myself now, and be forgiven and made clean now, and extend mercy to others and point them to the One who can can change their life, too; and together we can listen to a Voice stronger, deeper, kinder, purer, and wiser than we have ever heard before and could ever hope to hear.