Did anyone else play the game of “Mercy” when you were a child? When you grab hands with a friend and try to contort, twist, turn, and rip each other’s hands off until one of you cries out for mercy? What a terrible game! And one I was pretty good at, I remember lamentably. That is often how we think of mercy these days. A little discomfort on the part of both individuals, with one person finally asking for relief at the hands of another.
Yet that definition of the word goes against the very grain of mercy itself. Merriam-Webster defines mercy as ” kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly; kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation; a good or lucky fact or situation; a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion.” Yes, there is the idea of being able to treat someone harshly… but the idea of love, compassion, and care is the overwhelming meaning of the word.
As we will see on Sunday, God calls us to mercy towards one another. One of the verses that sticks out to me is from Hosea 6:6. In Hosea, God laments the fact that his people’s love is as fleeting as the morning dew. So, he tells them he sends prophets to rend their hearts and cut with their words, not to destroy or kill the people but to cause them to return to the LORD. And then Hosea speaks this statement: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Jesus quotes this same passage in Matthew 9. Here he is talking to the Pharisees, who are angry at the reception that tax collectors and sinners receive from Jesus.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus brings this passage to bear in a new way. He is calling the Pharisees out on their lack of mercy towards those who need it. Jesus came to call everyone back to the LORD; he found the greatest receptivity among the “sinners,” so that is where he often focused. Yes, Jesus is being quietly sarcastic. Yes, Jesus is calling them on the carpet and asking them to perform a spiritual evaluation of their own health. And yes, Jesus wants the Pharisees to realize that they, too, are sinners.
But he also reminds us that we have to LEARN what it means to be merciful. Those who were best versed in the Law still didn’t get it. And many of us who think we have God figured out have the hardest time understanding what it means to be merciful.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. – Hosea 6:6
This week we are talking about mercy. And although I thought I knew what it meant, I have learned a lot over the past few weeks. I pray that you, too, will learn what it means to “love mercy” as we worship together this Sunday.