In Matthew 9, Jesus challenges the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” A few chapters later, the Pharisees find themselves on the wrong side of a dispute about the law with Jesus. There he tells them, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” In Matthew’s gospel, the priority of mercy over sacrifice is the key to understanding God and faithfully interpreting the law.
My friend, Andre Resner, says that the “Go and learn… mercy, not sacrifice” is the first great commission in Matthew. I think he’s on to something. In MT 23 Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, “because you cross land and sea to make a single disciple and make them twice the child of hell you are yourselves.” Being in mission is not first about crossing land and sea–not even if you have zeal for making disciples. Mission first is about knowing what it means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
I’m one of those guys who thinks that the days of “If you build it, they will come,” are largely over for most congregations. The nice thing about “if you build it” as a way of ministry is that those who are coming to you have to do all the heavy cultural lifting in order to cross boundaries and belong. Not surprisingly, those willing to cross this boundary do so because they already share a lot in common with us–ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. It’s really not an imperative to know what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” if that is how things are set up.
But, if the boundary crossing is now incumbent upon us, if God’s hospitality now needs to take place on someone else’s turf, then we will have to learn the value of mercy over sacrifice. Very few congregations tell me that they think being missional is a bad thing. Few of them, however, are spiritually ready in my opinion to cross boundaries for the sake of a new missional community.
Why is this the case? There are a lot of reasons, I suspect. But few have written as powerfully about this movement toward the other than Richard Beck. His book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, places our aversion to the other deep in our make-up as human beings.
Richard, along with esteemed Old Testament professor, Walter Brueggemann, will be the featured speakers at Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier, June 18-20 at Rochester College. This will be an important conversation for those interested in being a part of missional communities.
In the video below, Beck talks about his book, and in particular about the influence of Walter Brueggemann on his work.