I’ve often told the story of how I discovered the verse that became the basis for the title of this website. It was the summer of 2008 and I had been working at a summer camp in east Durham. The lectionary gospel readings I had heard over the previous months included Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, both of which involve Jesus quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I had been tossing this phrase around in my mind, trying to understand what it meant. Then one morning at the camp, I was given the task of waking up a homeless man in our parking lot and sending him on his way. He was very belligerent, and I was worried for my safety, so I turned to walk away. But then the homeless man said, “Where’s your fucking mercy, man?” It was the only time in my life I ever heard God drop the f-bomb, and it definitely got my attention.
Since that morning five years ago when a homeless man became my f-bomb dropping angel of the Lord, I have been on a quest to do what Jesus told the Pharisees to do in Matthew 9:13: “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus said this after the Pharisees judged Him for eating and drinking with sinners at Matthew the tax collector’s house. Within this context, Jesus seems to intend for ‘mercy’ to refer to His willingness to dine with sinners, because he says after this phrase, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The crazy thing is the context of Hosea 6:6 has nothing to do with eating and drinking with sinners.
In Hosea 6:6, God is making a statement about Israel’s betrayal and apostasy. The NRSV translates Hosea 6:6 as “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The word that gets translated ‘steadfast love’ in Hosea 6:6 is chesed. The Old Testament is filled with references to God’s chesed for His people. The reason that chesed means both ‘mercy’ and ‘steadfast love’ is because it refers to the perfectly faithful love a father has for his children even when they’ve done something wrong. Hosea 6:6 is the only place I know about where God asks for chesed from His people; almost every other reference to chesed (which are all over the psalms for instance) is something God promises to His people or something His people ask for from Him.
In any case, Hosea 6:6 has nothing to do with how you treat other people, least of all sinners. It has to do with loving God genuinely rather than just going through the motions of prescribed sacrifices; the point of the burnt offerings is to instill knowledge of God; without genuine love, they have no meaning. So Jesus is making a radical interpretive decision in Matthew 9:13 to quote Hosea 6:6 as a justification for eating and drinking with sinners. He’s saying in effect that steadfast love for God requires and is equivalent to mercy for sinners. This is completely consistent of course with Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters you have done for me.” Jesus is saying the way I know that you really love me is for you to love your neighbor, especially the neighbor you want to judge the most.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ way of relating to His Father and other people is defined in contrast to the Pharisees; it is the way of mercy versus the way of sacrifice. When our relationship to God is defined in terms of sacrifice, it is a transactional relationship. We try to figure out exactly what homage we need to “pay” God, so that God will have no choice but to reward us. Other people have no relevance in this approach to religion, except as foils to make us look better, like in the prayer that the Pharisee prays at the temple next to the tax collector: “I thank you God that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11).
The way that many suburban Christians in our day embody this Pharisee’s prayer is to define their morality in terms of what they already do well and what others (particularly the poor) seem to fail at doing. The “sacrificial” morality of suburban Christianity today is often to avoid the unholy trinity of extramarital sex, drugs, and profanity. Certainly these three are good and legitimate things to avoid, but the question is whether we are avoiding them in order to become merciful, per Matthew 9:13 or in order to have a basis for being pleased with ourselves and an excuse not to be merciful to people we deem less moral than us.
If God desires mercy and not sacrifice, then the pursuit of holiness is a means to an end and not an end unto itself. Yes, we absolutely should avoid all the world’s idols, addictions, and bad habits, but only so that we can focus our undistracted energy on sharing God’s mercy with others. Those who prefer sacrifice to mercy are often pitting love of God against love of neighbor, something the Israelites did time and time again in the Old Testament, necessitating the prophets’ continual reminders, like Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
God doesn’t want perfect people to spend eternity with Him; God wants people who have truly accepted His mercy and thus accepted His demand to show mercy to others. James 2:12-13 is an important expression of this principle: “Speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” We do not have a fastidiously perfectionist God who is impossible to please; we have a God whose main concern is showing solidarity to the most vulnerable of His creatures and thus will not accept anyone except as recipients of His mercy who are willing to be obedient to that mercy and don’t have any delusion about circumventing this obedience through sacrifice.