What’s your attitude about inviting people to explore faith in the person of Jesus?
Tax collectors and other outcasts had gathered in Matthew’s house for a feast, (Matthew 9.9). In the centre of the hubbub, Jesus and his followers reclined at the dinner table. Noticing Jesus’s presence among such riff-raff, 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”. 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’”.
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.
The Biblical truth is this: God always values “mercy” over “sacrifice.”
But what exactly does that mean?
In Matthew 9 how do you view the people that Jesus was spending time with? The Pharisees looked around Matthew’s house and saw nameless “tax collectors” and “sinners.” Jesus looked around and saw people He cared about, people He wanted to hang out with. And He knew their names.
If we just do good acts, or charitable acts, for the sake of doing them we’ve missed the whole concept of “love as I have loved you” (John 13:34) and the sacrifice we’re making in Jesus’ name is likely to be faceless. You see the sacrifices we are called to make for Jesus need to come from our heart, from our Spirit. So, for Christians it’s all personal with Jesus. It’s all about relationships.
If we truly want to move beyond sacrifice to mercy, as Jesus calls us to do, we need to get our heart involved with all that we do in our daily lives. This will involve developing 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”. Such words can convey a certain condescension: Aren’t I something, helping out this person who’s less fortunate than I am?
As a teenager I helped a neighbour cut her grass when I saw her struggling with her mower. I felt good about myself, “What a good lad 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.
Jesus longs for us to move beyond the idea that sacrifice is what we feel obligated to give up in order to appear 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 Jesus loves us.
Jesus ate with Matthew and his friends because He wanted to. He loved them. I would imagine that there was 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 up-ended, the moral and the maligned. But Jesus didn’t label people. He loved Nicodemus as genuinely as He loved Zacchaeus, and He loved Mary of Bethany as He loved Mary Magdalene. He always looked beyond a person’s history toward a person’s future.
What’s your attitude about inviting people to explore faith? Is it in line with Jesus’ attitude?
Ask God to move you toward Jesus’ kind of love. Then we will be as comfortable at a table of ex-cons and alcoholics as we should be with church folk.
Don’t be satisfied with just “hands-on” rituals. Ask God to move you toward “hearts-in” mercy, Jesus’ mercy. Jesus wants us to have a year round attitude about living out His mercy and love in all the relationships that build up and extend His Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
Based on a sermon delivered on 19th January 2020.