One time, Jesus was having dinner with tax collectors and sinners, and some Pharisees raised a commotion with Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “Why is he eating with those guys?” That’s my own rough translation. Jesus heard about it soon enough and remarked “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13).
I think he’s speaking to us, don’t you? Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. We can do sacrifice just fine, but mercy? Forget about it. The righteous are always in favor of the system of sacrifice because that can be mastered, domesticated, and controlled. The righteous can codify their rituals, prescribe orthodox forms and techniques, and control who approaches the altar and under what conditions. But mercy…oh mercy, that’s hard to do. And mercy, Jesus says, that’s for sinners.
I remember watching a high school Texas football game where the score was 50-0 by the second quarter. The team called it quits at half time. Why? The school division had something called the mercy rule. That’s where the game automatically ends when one team reaches a certain score threshold. This may explain why Georgia only beat Tennessee by 41 points this year.
The book of James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” That’s good news, because if judgment carries the day, we’re all in a pile of trouble. But the logic of our culture is that of no mercy. It’s like that scene in Gladiator when the emperor lowers his thumb, signaling the violent destruction of the contestant. Our national culture is kind of like one big Gladiator game, and we tune in to see who is being devoured by the lions today. In our politics and social media, shame and humiliation are the order of the day, not mercy.
So this explains the Pharisees’ horror at seeing a rabbi eat with sinners. It had never occurred to them to show mercy to sinners. Their paradigm admitted of only one rule: exclusion of the impure. Eating with sinners violated their system of sacrificial purity. The righteous cannot be contaminated by sinners. There’s not much room for mercy when you spend most of your time deciding who is in and who is out. But Jesus just had to act like…well…Jesus. And Jesus came to call sinners. And sinners apparently need mercy. I know I do. Do you?