Mercy Not Sacrifice

MATTHEW 4 of 12

We are in our fourth of twelve weeks of exploring the gospel according to Matthew this summer. Matthew is a long book—it’s been divided up into 28 chapters and it’s got almost 1100 verses. If we were trying to study it verse-by-verse and word-by-word—we would studying it for years. During this series we’re trying to hit passages and parts of Matthew that are utterly unique to Matthew. Moments that are found nowhere else. Today I want us to look at a story that’s a bit personal for Matthew—the moment when Jesus changed his life. This is a story that’s actually preserved for us in Luke’s gospel too, but there’s actually something small in the story that is utterly unique to Matthew.

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. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. (Matthew 9v9-10)

If we’re at all familiar with the life of Jesus, we remember that Jesus is announcing and enacting the kingdom of God—or “the kingdom of heaven” as it’s called in Matthew. This is what the Jewish people had been hoping and longing and looking for. And Jesus is announcing it. Jesus is proclaiming that things are finally becoming what God wants them to be.

And more than just proclaiming—he’s putting his money where his mouth is—Jesus is practicing the kingdom of heaven. The life of heaven is arriving in and through Jesus. He’s healing, he’s restoring, he’s feeding, he’s forgiving—all of it a picture of the life of heaven breaking into the world.

But then Jesus begins doing something strange here—something unquestionably inappropriate. Jesus begins hanging out with the wrong kinds of people. With the worst kind of people. Because tax collectors are the worst. Genuinely awful people. Traitors and thieves, they are. Traitors because they’ve switched jerseys—they’ve joined up with the enemy—they’re working for Rome. They’ve betrayed their blood, burned the flag, left the faith.

Imagine if you heard about someone from Westminster or Arvada that had begun fundraising for ISIS or Al Qaeda. Most Americans would say, “Have you lost your mind? Do you know what you’re supporting? They are the enemy—there is nothing good in them.”

That’s similar to the way people felt about tax collectors: “Have you lost your mind? Do you know what you’re supporting? You are working with enemy—collecting money to support that hateful army that occupies our streets and our cities and our land.There is nothing good in them. And evidently there’s nothing good in you.”

So tax collectors are already popular because they’re traitors, but then also add thievery to their resume. It’s not like tax collectors filled out a W4 and an I9 and then got a regularly paycheck from the Roman bank. No, tax collectors basically paid themselves. Let’s say Rome demanded $100 from you in taxes each month. Matthew would probably collect $110 from you. A hundred for Rome, and ten for himself. That’s how a tax collector got paid—they paid themselves from they collected from everyone else. The skimmed a little off the top. (Or—let’s be honest—a lot off the top if they could manage it.)

You don’t want to pay? Well, if you don’t come by Matthew’s tax booth, Matthew has still got to collect the money somehow. Rome has got to be paid one way or another. Otherwise Matthew loses his job—and probably more than that—and Rome finds another tax collector who would get them their money. So Matthew comes to you—to your business, to your place of residence—and shakes you down. Matthew makes you an offer you can’t refuse. He gets the money. One way or another.

Rome and its thousands and thousands of soldiers—they’ve got to be paid. And so Matthew is just the local guy making it happen and getting a cut. Tax collectors were maybe a bit like an IRS agent, and a loan shark, and the repo man rolled up into one person. You became a tax collector—you chose to work with the enemy—so you could get a cut. It was a good way to get some financial security. A good way to get some money. And a good way to get hated.

People in the first century argued conservative and liberal in politics, argued Hillel and Shammai in Bible study, argued Broncos and Raiders in sports… but they could all agree on one thing. “We can all agree that we don’t like those people.” We can all agree that those people are genuinely awful. Traitors and thieves, they are.

And those people that we all agree about—those no joke, genuinely awful people—those are the people that Jesus begins hanging out with. Those are the people that Jesus invites to follow him. Because when Jesus sees Matthew at his tax booth, he doesn’t see a label… he sees a life. He doesn’t see a problem… he sees person. A person trying to figure life out. A person who is hurting others, sure, but also a person who is hurting himself. A person needing guidance and healing and forgiveness. A person who needs mercy.

And that’s what Jesus gives him. He invites him into something new. “Come follow me.” And so Matthew does (v9). He gets up and follows. He leaves his booth—presumably unattended. Like other disciples who left their fishing nets—their livelihoods—Matthew leaves his tax booth.

And then Jesus goes and has dinner at his house. This is where it gets wildly inappropriate. Yes, Matthew has left his old life behind… like five minutes ago. But who are all of Matthew’s friends? More of those genuinely awful people. They haven’t repented. They haven’t changed. And who knows what they’re eating and drinking?

In this culture, the table is one of the most intimate places of solidarity and friendship. This is so inappropriate. These people are the problem, Jesus. You’re announcing the kingdom of heaven, but these people all work for the kingdom of Rome—for another kingdom.

“We hate to be blunt… but are you foolish, Jesus? Are you completely unaware of your actions? Don’t you know that you’re defiling yourself by hanging out with these people? You’re doing some great stuff,
but these people are making you dirty. You’re ruining your ‘witness.’ According to the religious standards of the day, what you’re doing is worse than unhelpful, worse than unwise—it’s unholy.

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9v11)

Of course they did. These are the wrong people. The people who are causing the problems. They’re definitely not helping fix the problems.

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9v12-13)

Now this story is also recorded for us in Mark and Luke. They both include the parts about the healthy not needing a doctor, and about Jesus calling sinners and not those who think they’ve already got their act together. But Matthew is the only gospel-writer to include Jesus quoting from the Bible.Jesus tells the religious experts—the religious geniuses:

“You really should go back and learn what the Bible is about. Go read the prophet Hosea. Centuries ago when we—as a people—fell under the judgment of God, what did God tell us? He told us what was most important—most central—what we were absolutely missing the boat on. It’s not that we weren’t getting the religious stuff right—it’s that we weren’t acting in love towards each other. God said through Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and what you’re seeing from me is mercy on full display.

To borrow the words of G.K. Chesterton, Jesus was walking the world like the pardon of God.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to record this quotation from the prophet Hosea—I would guess because it was so important to him. He had experienced the pardon of God—the mercy of God—and it stuck with him the way Jesus had shown that this is what the Bible has always been about. This is what God has always wanted in the world. Not more religion. Not more sacrifice. More mercy. More compassion.

Matthew could never forget the way that Jesus quoted Hosea. Those words stuck with him. Those words changed the way he understood God and the Bible and life and everything. And he wanted to make sure that other people heard those words too. So much so that he included them here.

So much so that he repeats them… just in case we missed it the first time. In Matthew 12, Jesus’s disciples are doing something that the religious experts don’t like. So they approach Jesus and say: “Hey Jesus, why are they doing that? You realize they’re violating religious rules, right?” And Jesus replies:

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12v7)

Matthew includes those words from Hosea again. He’s the only gospel-writer to do so. They’re pretty important to him. Back in Hosea’s day, the people of God had fallen under God’s judgment. Not because they told a little white lie or said a naughty word when they stubbed the toe. No—the people of God had become corrupt to the core. They had actually become a force for evil in the world:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
    because the Lord has a charge to bring
    against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
    no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
    stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
    and bloodshed follows bloodshed.

(Hosea 4v1-2)

No faithfulness. No love. Cursing each other. Lying. Murder. Stealing. Adultery. Bloodshed after bloodshed. And so the Lord was bringing judgment on them. As a nation—as a people—they would be conquered and torn to bits. And that’s what happened. An empire called Assyria conquered them and tore them apart. 

But eventually Hosea continues speaking for the people as a whole. He says:

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

(Hosea 6v1-3)

According to Hosea, the doctor who would heal them would be God himself. So when Jesus quotes from the scroll of Hosea and calls himself a doctor, there’s something pretty big being said there. And then finally the doctor—the healer—arrives in Hosea’s prophecy and says:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

(Hosea 6v6)

God tells his people that your sacrifices and religion don’t mean a thing if they’re not connected to “chesed”—loyal, faithful love. That’s what I want.

Not lying. Love.
Not bloodshed. Brotherhood.
Not murder. Mercy.

That’s how Hosea’s words got translated into the Greek. That’s how Matthew quotes him: “Eleos.” Eleos is what God has always been looking for in humanity. Kindness. Compassion. Mercy.

In Hosea’s day, the people of God knew that they were under God’s judgment. They knew that God himself had dismantled them—had torn them to pieces—but they also believed: “God will come to us, God will arrive with us, God will heal us.”

And that’s exactly the story that Matthew is telling. That in Jesus, the doctor has come to us, the doctor has arrived with us, the doctor is healing us. Jesus is bringing mercy to everyone—walking the world like the pardon of God—and he’s beginning to heal those who want healing. And this brings us to a something critical in Matthew’s entire gospel:

We really experience God’s healing when give what we’re given.

God is already, always giving us mercy. We don’t have to pray for it, ask for it, or beg for it—we’re just invited to begin to believe it. But if we want most fully experience this mercy—to taste this mercy, to be healed by this mercy—we’ve got to give this mercy others.

What we believe about God tends to look like how we behave towards people. If you really want to know what you believe about God, look at the way you treat those around you. If we sent out a survey and asked other people how you behave toward them, what would they say? He holds a grudge. She can’t let things go. He doesn’t trust people. She just finds fault in every little thing. If I were to guess, when we find fault in everything little thing, something within us thinks that’s what God is like. When we can’t let things go—when we hold a grudge—somewhere deep within us we think that God is holding a grudge.

Our behavior looks like what we believe; and eventually our behavior reinforces what we believe. We hold the grudge, we refuse to speak to them, and it makes us even more confident that just the way life works. David says something similar in one of his songs. In one of his Psalm 18 he says:

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
     with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
     and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.

(Psalm 18v25-26, ESV)

Notice what David isn’t saying. He’s not saying that we actually change God. That would be crazy. We never change what God is like. We’re not changing God. God is love itself. God is goodness and justice itself. God is mercy itself. God never changes, but our experience and perception of God does change.

…and it’s intimately connected with how we treat other people. And that’s why Jesus tells us to forgive those around us. That’s why Jesus tells us to love those around us. It’s why Jesus tells us to be merciful. Jesus wants us to experience those things ourselves. But to experience them we’ve got to give them.

We often most easily believe whatever we’re most determined to give. If we are determined to be
suspicious of their motives, angry and resentful of that person, unforgiving because it was just too wrong… then that’s going to be our existence. That’s what we’re going to experience ourselves. That’s what we’re going to believe. We’re going to believe that other people are just as suspicious, and angry, and resentful, and unforgiving as us… and we’ll believe it about God too.

But if we are determined to love those around us, to be patient with that person, to be compassionate even when I don’t want to be, that’s going to be our existence. That’s what we’re going to begin believing about other people and what we’re going to be believe about God. We learn to believe God’s mercy as we learn to give God’s mercy.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus strongest warnings are towards people like the Pharisees who refuse to give mercy, refuse to love, refuse to forgive. And Matthew has skin in the game on this one. Because Jesus befriended him, invited him, dined with him—when no one else would. Jesus had shown him mercy when everyone else showed him malice. That’s what Jesus does for all of us. He gives mercy without measure. Because that’s what God is like. And Matthew becomes an evangelist for the pardon of God.

Matthew had experienced the mercy of God in Jesus, and he’s begun to realize that mercy can only heal us only when it gets into our blood. Again and again and again, Matthew wants to make sure we hear Jesus telling us be generous to others, to forgive others, to show mercy to others. Because that’s what we’re going to experience. Or as Jesus puts it, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (5.7).

May we give what we’re being already given. May we experience the mercy of God, because we’re determined to give the mercy of God. May we—like Jesus—walk the world as the pardon of God.