Twice in Matthew’s gospel, nearly complete verbatim agreement with Mark’s account is expanded to include a line from the prophets: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13, 12:7). In the first instance, Jesus invites the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” I heard Andre Resner once refer to this as the first great commission in Matthew, which I have come to accept as gospel. In the second, the phrase points to the different approaches taken by Jesus and the Pharisees to the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath. In this instance, Jesus says, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
I won’t take the time here to trace the enormously important theme of mercy in Matthew, but will just make the observation that this line from the prophet seems to serve as an interpretative approach to the law taken by Jesus in Matthew. This is not only how Jesus interprets Scripture, but how he interprets situations, and who he believes God to be. I think it is the clarion call of Jesus in Matthew to learn what it means to desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
So, what does it mean? Clearly in its original settings (Hosea with similar sentiments in Micah and Amos), it has some reference to the offering of sacrifices in the temple. The prophets indicate that God is not pleased with “thousands of rams or 10,000 rivers of oil.” Rather, the Lord requires justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:6-9). So at one level the saying has to do with not expecting favor with God through religious performance, but through a life that honors what God values.
In Matthew, the Pharisees have little or no interest in what is happening in the temple. They agree with Jesus that temple practice has been corrupted, and they view keeping favor with God as a matter of Torah observance. They share this value with Jesus who proclaims, “think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 6:17). So, Jesus and the Pharisees share an emphasis on the proper performance of the law and the prophets, but they differ in approach. That difference in approach is encapsulated in the line, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
So, if sacrifice is the interpretative path the Pharisees take in Matthew, and temple observance is not in view, what is being indicated? I think the word that typifies this approach is the word “purity.” Matthew’s Pharisees are interested in observable aspects of the law that keep them pure or clean (sabbath, circumcision, diet, etc), not contaminated or unclean. It’s not hard to imagine that maintaining a reality through an appeal to purity would run headlong into conflict with an appeal to mercy. It’s not that purity is unimportant to Jesus, but if it becomes the primary way you understand God’s presence in the world, then you’ve misunderstood God. Mercy is the big umbrella category for understanding the way of the “kingdom of heaven.” And if there’s a conflict between mercy and purity, mercy wins.
I’ve had occasion to think about this more of late, especially as it comes to relationships. I’ve run afoul of this principle myself thinking that if certain things can be avoided, that if somehow purity or rightness can be achieved through strict observance, then the outcomes will be good. When we do this, we’re setting up everyone involved for failure, for resentment and shame.
I know Christians who are brutally hard on themselves and highly anxious because they have high standards of performance and I wonder if this isn’t evidence that purity, and not mercy, is piping the tune. In my students, I know some feel pressure to perform in systems that are high on demand and low on tolerance. I wonder if this isn’t evidence of valuing sacrifice, not mercy.
I know churches who are clearly more interested in keeping their precincts pure, whether morally or doctrinally, than they are modeling the way of mercy.
Here’s the rub, I think Jesus actually thinks you get more out of people through mercy, not sacrifice. I think Jesus is serious when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:20). I think that valuing mercy over sacrifice produces this exceeding righteousness. Mercy is an expansive way of being in the world. It often requires more of us in living it out than the quick drawing of lines enabled by the way of sacrifice. It can be a more rigorous “yoke.” But it is also the light burden. It is rest for the soul. Mercy creates possibility and it mitigates the debilitating effects of scolding and shaming. It recognizes our limitations and refuses to assess value in light of those. Mercy creates environments for flourishing and ultimately produces better, more productive people. Most importantly, mercy frees us toward God. Freed from guilt and shame, we can pursue God without fear.
I hope you can see that just as sacrifice is more than what you do in the temple, so mercy is more than just overlooking wrongdoing. It is a large organizing perspective on life. There are certainly times to establish boundaries and expectations. To use Miroslav Volf’s language, there are times to exclude and not embrace. But these should take place under the overall desire for mercy. In light of this, I’m mindful of Ubuntu, an African perspective on life that understands the self only in its relatedness to others. “I am, because we are.” Built into this way of being are empathy and trust. I’ve been told that Ubuntu is manifest in ways of dealing with people who have violated community standards. Instead of retribution, the way of sacrifice, offenders are surrounded by the community and reminded of all the positive things that person contributes to their collective life. Justice here is restorative, not retributive. The way of mercy. I wonder which produces better outcomes.