Updated: May 18, 2020
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Jesus quotes this verse from Hosea 6:6 two times in the Gospel of Matthew (9:13, 12:7). In both instances, he is responding to the Pharisees as they try to question and challenge him. The Pharisees, who adhere to a strict obedience of the Law, have turned their religious tradition into a system that protects the power and privilege of the religious elite while keeping others down. When they challenge Jesus (and eventually plot his murder), they do so because they see Jesus’ whole new way of living where he accepts “sinners” and offers mercy as a threat to their power and position.
What does Jesus mean when he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice?” Since we don’t do sacrifices like the Israelites did, maybe a better way to think of this is “I desire mercy over following the rules.” If we feel that what is most important is living a moral life and being “good,” then we have missed the point of the life that God calls us to. If we judge others or try to determine others’ salvation by the rules we think they should follow, we’re getting it wrong. If we decide who is worthy based on the way they live their lives or the choices they’ve made, we don’t understand God’s heart. The way of life that God has called us to can be summed up by two commands, as Jesus pointed out in Matthew 22:37-40.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
These are the commands that we should hold as the highest standard. These are more important than simply making sure that we live a moral life. These are more important than making sure that others live a moral life. That’s not to say that following rules is not important or that God is not concerned with the way that we live our lives. Jesus came to show us how he wants us to live, and so we should pay close attention and follow his lead. Jesus lived a holy life, but he did not judge or condemn those who did not. He did not make people feel unclean or unworthy if they were living outside the Law. Instead, he led with mercy, and he led with love. As people experienced that love and mercy, they were restored to the people God had created them to be. It doesn’t work the other way around. We can’t lead with the Law and judgment and expect people to experience love and restoration. When the Law becomes more important than loving others, there is something seriously wrong there.
Jesus modeled what mercy looked like over and over again in the Gospels. I think about the stories of Zacchaeus and the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery and the woman at the well who had been divorced several times and was living with a man she was not married to. In each one of these instances, others pointed their fingers and said that those people were not worthy because of how they lived their lives. But Jesus accepted them while they were still living in their sinful ways. He did not condemn them. He did not even force them to change. He loved them as they were. And it was that love that brought about restoration in their lives. That should be the example we follow as we interact with others.
But we can’t just stop there at how we personally treat people. Jesus saw a system that had been corrupted and was being used to oppress people. The Pharisees had taken the Law, which in and of itself was good, and they twisted it to make it something that determines people’s value and position. They used it as a way to hold the power and as a way to keep others down. And Jesus was not having any of it. He called them out for using a system and a set of rules to divide and to trample on others. We also have a responsibility to stand up to the systems that seek to destroy people. We cannot be fooled into thinking that just because something is law means that it is right and just. And when the law comes into conflict with loving others, we must choose love.
I want to share a few stories that I heard while I was in Tijuana with Global Immersion on a trip to learn more about how people are being affected by the issue of immigration. We met with several moms who had been deported from the US. Each of them had a different story of what had led to her deportation, but none of them had criminal records.
Yolanda had been in the US legally on a tourist visa with her 2 children. At one point when she was trying to take a family member back to Mexico, a customs agent at the border stopped her and for some reason decided to cancel her visa. Right there, with no notice, she was deported and never able to return even though her children remained in the US. That was the last time she saw her daughter, who’s a DACA recipient. Her daughter cannot leave the country, and Yolanda can’t get back to her. It’s been 8 years.
Emma had lived in the US for several years and married a US citizen and had children there. She was actually trying to apply for residency through her husband. She wanted to become documented. She was told that she had to leave the country and go to Juarez to do some paperwork and have her interview in order to finish up the process. Once she left the country, they told her she couldn’t return for 10 years. At that time when she left, she had a 2 month old baby back in the US. This nursing mother was taken away from her newborn. She’s now been separated from her family for 12 years because they decided it was in the best interest of their kids to be raised in the US. Luckily, she gets to see her family once a week since they’re all US citizens and they can come visit her, but she has missed out on so much.
When these moms were asked if they’ve ever considered trying to cross back over the border without papers, one of them replied, “I think about it all the time because I would rather die in the desert than be separated from my kids.” I can’t imagine having to make the choice to either follow the law and live life without my kids or take the risk of dying in the desert to get to them.
There was one more mom, Paulina, that we met who had just been deported the day before. She and her family decided to make the trip up to the US from where they lived in Guerrero, which is in southern Mexico, because there was no work there and there wasn’t even enough corn to eat. I learned that the reason that there wasn’t enough corn to eat is actually a result of US corn coming into Mexico and putting Mexican farmers out of business. So they were desperate for food and work, and they felt that their only option at finding those things was to come to the US. Paulina’s husband and kids had already made it to the US, and she was trying to cross through the desert to get to them. But she was caught after she had crossed the border and sent to Tijuana.
I sat there and listened to each of these stories, and I saw how there are laws that have been created to keep people out. There are a lot of justifications for why we need these laws and how we have to protect “our people.” But the reality is that these laws completely disregard the humanity, dignity, and need of so many people. There are some people who uphold these laws because they feel that the law is supreme and there is a duty to follow the laws no matter the circumstance. There are others who uphold these laws because they recognize that the system benefits them – that the system protects their power, position, and privilege by keeping others down. But if Jesus sat across from these women I met, who are desperate to be with their children, desperate to provide food and education and basic needs for their children, I cannot believe that he would say, “I’m sorry. That’s really sad, but you weren’t born here so you don’t belong here.” That’s not the Jesus that I know and read about in the gospels.
God desires mercy over following the rules. What does mercy look like? Mercy is not just about feeling sorry for others. It’s not just about praying for others. Mercy requires action. We also heard from a young woman named Nohemi who lives in San Diego and is a DACA recipient. She talked about how after the President made the announcement that he was going to repeal DACA, she started receiving texts from people, saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m praying for you.” And she said that these texts actually made her really angry. She said that she wanted to respond with, “Your prayers mean nothing to me right now. Where were you when I asked you to call your elected officials? Where were you when I asked you to attend a rally with me? Where were you when I asked you to vote?” Yes, prayer is important. Prayer can change things. Jesus tells us to pray. BUT, Jesus doesn’t call us to JUST sit in our homes and pray. There has to be action involved.
James 2:12-17 says,
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
God desires mercy, and mercy requires action. Mercy requires that we see the humanity of others and also recognize our own humanity. Mercy sees the true need and seeks restoration. And in order to give mercy, it must flow out of our own awareness of how we have received mercy so abundantly.
I found the following question in NT Wright’s commentary on Matthew 12, and I think it is an important one for us to consider.
What systems are currently in danger of being exalted over the needs of real human beings, in your country, your church, your family? What would it mean for the Son of Man to be master of them? – NT Wright
This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on Matthew 12. If you’d like to listen to the whole sermon and hear more context about the scripture, click here for the recording.
Learn more about the stories of Yolanda and Emma by watching this short video.