Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
What on earth…? This was GOD HIMSELF sitting right there and teaching the disciples. What about this lesson required them to leave Jesus’ side in order to be able to learn? The very idea disturbs me.
What could not be learned from Christ alone is that God’s movement toward us occurs not in spite of our sin, but precisely because of it. Our sin is NECESSARY to reveal God’s mercy, and in an unexpected, fabulous shift, sin gives birth to grace.
Jesus statement starts with mercy for good reason. Our understanding of mercy can never mature without other human beings. The reason this is true is that we can receive mercy from God, but we are unable to be merciful toward him. Jesus told his disciples to go and learn what this means precisely because they could not learn from Jesus alone the difference between mercy and sacrifice or why God prefers the former. It’s why the solitary aesthetic lifestyle can never be a true measure of spirituality. True spiritual maturity or Christ-likeness can only be realized in community.
Our humanity in contrast with God’s divinity is laid bare in the difference between mercy and sacrifice. While mercy requires a human receiver, sacrifice, whether referring to the burnt offerings of the Old Testament or a modern equivalent, can be done in isolation between one person and God. God’s preference for mercy means that we cannot please him in isolation. What he desires is not what we do in our relationship with him, our devotion to him, or our piety toward him. What pleases him most is how we give and receive mercy in relationship with other people.
It reminds me of my kids. I love when they are sweet to me. I delight in their kindness toward me or their gifts to me or their affection of me. But when I see my sons doing and saying these exact same thing to one another… there is nothing more satisfying and nothing that makes be prouder as a mother. Frankly, all their tenderness toward me would be meaningless if they turned around and acted hatefully toward their brother in the next breath. I wonder if God feels similarly.
Another difference between mercy and sacrifice is that mercy is done for one who doesn’t deserve it, while sacrifice is done for one who does. Mercy is always an undeserved gift whereas honor often requires sacrifice. For example, a lifeguard drowning in order to rescue a victim is self-sacrifice because there is no moral difference between lifeguard and victim, and the commitment inherent in lifeguarding suggests such a sacrifice might someday be required. On the other hand, drowning to rescue the very person that angrily pulled you into the ocean with them is a merciful act. The rescue is not required by position, nor does the other person have any moral ground on which to demand it.
Interestingly, I cannot think of any example of mercy without a component of forgiveness woven in.
Humans can both sacrifice for and be merciful toward other humans, and it is significant that God explicitly prefers one of these. It reminds me of “love your enemies.” Loving our enemies is mercy, not sacrifice. They do not deserve it by position or moral hierarchy. Indeed, to be merciful to others requires us to enter into relationships with those who have wronged us or who are morally lacking in comparison to us. It requires us to be in relationships with people who don’t deserve it. This is the precise context in which Jesus spoke these words. He was answering the questions about why he was spending time with the most detested and avoided fringes of society.
And to receive mercy? We are often on the receiving end of mercy and have no idea. I think we can safely assume this for all the times we have shown mercy at great personal cost to someone who neither recognized or appreciated it. How many times do we receive mercy without even knowing? Coming to recognize how often I need mercy puts me face to face with my sinfulness for if I was sinless, I would be in no need of mercy from others or from God.
When we enter into diverse relationships, we learn what it means to receive mercy as we learn what it costs to give mercy. We begin to see the difference between sacrifice for the deserving (our children, our friends, the good) and mercy toward the undeserving (the criminal, the addicted, the selfish). At some profound moment, and only because we’ve entered into these uneven relationships, we LEARN. We realize that Jesus’ sacrifice was to his Father through his mercy to ME… which means that I am the criminal, the addict, the selfish… the sinner.
This is a shocking realization for some. It is for me. I’ve most often put myself in the “righteous” category and thus put this teaching in a not lost/lost paradigm. God doesn’t need to call me anymore because I am now righteous. He calls people when they are sinners and then they are made righteous. The End.
But that is not the actual message of this passage This is the call to unpack our identities as humans in relationship with the Divine. It’s another paradox of God – the strong are really the weak, and the found are the lost, and the first ones are the last. Similarly, the only way that we can perceive any call of God to relationship with him is in our sinfulness. He only calls people to the extent that they can accept their own human-ness. Knowing our callings apart from knowing the truth about our sinfulness and humanity in light of God’s holiness and divinity is impossible. To hear and to accept God’s calling on my life goes hand in hand with the ability to “be” a sinner.
This realization could bring despair. But it does not precisely because Jesus reminded us that he did not come for the righteous. He came for sinners. He came for me. This very grief of seeing my true humanity against his holiness is mercy itself. Somehow, in the paradoxical nature of God, it is our sin that makes space for knowing God. The very thing that brought us death reveals the deepest truth of his character, and it is what he desires the most for us to participate with him in. In a shocking twist, my sin has somehow become the necessary road on which mercy travels.