I Desire Mercy

Moment of confession: My spirit has been numb for a while. I’m pretty sure I know some of the reasons why, too. Your spirit, like your body or your mind, has to be used, and it has to be fed. I haven’t done much of either lately, though. I haven’t made time for it, and this is the result. I guess you reap what you sow.

But lately I find myself regaining an appetite for the Lord. I don’t mean that I want to read more theology or debate more with people about epistemology or christology or anthropology (sorry, guys!) . It’s just not where I am right now. I’m rediscovering my need to have actual interaction with my Maker. My insides don’t work right without that.

I’m reading the gospels lately, particularly a blending of them entitled The Greatest Story. I love this book, because it mixes together all four gospels, without the clutter of verse references next to every line (never fear, theologues; if you glance over to the margin you can find the source references for each section). This way it all reads as one story, instead of four. In reading this time, I find myself asking more pointedly than ever before: What is this Man like? I want to meet him again and know him better.

I must also admit that my reading of the gospels (this time) is coming on the heels of my having read The Secret Message of Jesus, by Brian MacLaren. In all honesty, I don’t share all the same burdens that he does, yet I always find him to be thought-provoking. Nothing he writes is parroted or un-thought-through. I like that.

Today I read two stories from Matthew 19. In the first one, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field, picking heads of wheat and eating them right off the stalk. When the pharisees chided them for breaking the Sabbath, Jesus retorted with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” His words fell on deaf ears, of course, because sacrifice was what his detractors were all about.

(That’s what the text says, guys. I don’t care what the Dead Sea Scrolls make it look like. The gospels are clear about who angered Jesus the most, and what their issues were) They were all about “doing it right.” I think any of us can honestly identify with that from time to time. But what matters most to him is that we care for one another. That’s snapshot number one of his heart. He is all about mercy.

The next story exposes the superficiality of the religious mind. As Jesus set out to heal a man who had a crippled hand, his detractors once again prepared to blow the whistle on him. They asked him a question designed to trap him: Is it legal to heal on the Sabbath?

What a question! Is it legal? How can you even ask if it’s okay to heal someone? To make matters worse, their implied answer must have been “no,” otherwise it wouldn’t have been much of a trap.

Well, Jesus turned the tables on them and asked a totally different question: Is the Sabbath for saving life, or destroying it? They had no answer to that question because it wasn’t one of the questions they learned to answer.

Behold the religious mind. It is not capable of thinking for itself. It cannot answer new questions. All it can do is move within the grooves already cut for it. It does not go to the root of righteousness. It can only stand outside of it, mimicking what it sees on the surface. True holiness, true righteousness, issues from a deeper place than that.

Let us love one another, because that’s what he is like. He is mercy. So now are we.


7 Responses to “I Desire Mercy”

  1. Mike Morrell Says:

    Amen, Neil. We need to tend to our spirits first and foremost. How sad and ironic if our scholarship is not integrated into a larger whole.

    “What is Jesus like?” What a worthy quest. This risen Lord we want to know and fellowship with isn’t some abstract deity; he has personality, dreams, ideas and passions. I’m glad you’re challenged by Brian even as you take issue with him; I’ll be interested to see how your Gospels reading ends up.

    As to the mercy and sacrifice thing…amen! I don’t know that you’ll find a contemporary scholar who thinks Jesus or Paul didn’t take issue with religious authorities–but it was definitely much more of a “family dispute” than we’ve previously realized. Jesus and Paul both have more in common with Pharisees than not.

    But going back to the passage at hand–absolutely! Jesus desires mercy above sacrifice. But what is “mercy” and what is “sacrifice”? We can’t just define these terms however we’d like. I don’t think you are doing this–you insist on the primacy of love, and I think that’s dead-on true. And I love how you say “the religious mind…cannot answer new questions. All it can do is move within the grooves already cut for it…true holiness, true righteousness, issues from a deeper place than that.”

    Amen! And where is this deeper space. Jesus does not speak in a vacuum in this passage. He invokes a larger prophetic tradition, reimagining the Law and other sacred injunctions, directly citing Hosea 6 and indirectly several other prophetic passages. And what do they mean? The Hebrew people loved to worship God. They loved the way they did so, too–they believed their ways of “adoring” God were God-ordained!

    But when these very people lent money at unfair interest rates, abused the foreigners and slaves in their midst, refused to honor Jubilee practices and committed other unjust practices, God said their worship was obnoxious and pointless!

    This is beautifully summarized in several key passages:

    “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

    “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds but you said, ‘I will not serve’…Why then do my people say, ‘We are free?’ Are they so free that they no longer press in hard after me?” Jeremiah 2:20, 31b.

    and in our buddy James: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to refuse to let the world corrupt us.” (1:27)

    When Jesus heals on sacred days and feeds on fasting days, he is displaying a God-in-action who cares more about meeting humanity’s needs than supposedly catering to the deity’s. I do not want to paint a false dichotomy here: Mary chose “the better part” of living by sitting at Jesus’ feet rather than busying herself with activity and anxiousness, keeping herself at arms’ length from the Master. Clearly, we need and want to adore the Trinity and enter into the fellowship that is our birthright. But the Godhead is not passive. God may be still in the center but at the edges God is action personified.

    I can relate to spiritual numbness, brother. I think the only antidote is to embrace a life of contemplation and action, loving awareness and loving deeds. It is only then that we won’t think in terms of “sacrifice” of any kind…it will be mercy all the way.

  2. J. Samuel Thomas Says:

    Please be merciful to me and respond to this meme (TAG, you’re it!):

    Oh..and, I’ll post a REAL comment soon!!

  3. J. Samuel Thomas Says:

    Dang it!

    Just come by my blog, would ya?

  4. J. Samuel Thomas Says:

    Mercy vs. Sacrifice
    Okay, now I can post a real comment.

    In essence, it sounds to me as if Jesus may as well said “I desire to let it go rather than to make you pay”.
    Or “I desire for you to let it go rather than to make them pay”.

    What’s the big deal?
    Surely this isn’t new to you guys!!

    Am I missing something here?
    Isn’t Christ the All…?
    The mercy, the justice, the sin, the sacrifice, the law, the prophets, heaven and earth, etc…?

  5. Christo Swanepoel Says:

    Jip, we are sooo human.

  6. J. Samuel Thomas Says:

    Sorry about the double ‘tag’.
    I just realized today that Mike already tagged you with the ‘confession’ meme.


  7. J. Samuel Thomas Says:

    I once read an article talking about ‘numbness’ in a body member.

    When your leg falls asleep, a good way to wake it back up is to massage or shake it a bit.
    This gets the Blood circulating again.

    There is always Life in the body when the blood is circulating.
    As the scripture says, “The Life is in the Blood.”

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