Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
There’s an Old Testament verse that Jesus quotes a few times in Matthew. Its a verse from Hosea.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6.
Hosea 6 is a heartbreaking chapter within a heartbreaking book. In Hosea, God is portrayed as a lover. He’s passionate about his people. He’s in love with Israel, his bride. But that love is not reciprocated. Israel is an unfaithful spouse.
Sure, she goes through the motions of the relationship. She offers sacrifices at the right time. But the hugs and kisses are empty. Israel’s heart belongs to another.
I desire mercy, says the Lord, not sacrifice. Acknowledge my presence, don’t just humour me with sacrifices.
The Hebrew word for mercy in Hosea 6 is “Hesed.”
Hesed is an important word in the Old Testament. It means, “Loving Kindness, Steadfast Love, Loyalty, Faithfulness, Mercy.
Most often, this word is used to describe God’s character.
For instance, in Exodus 34, when the Lord reveals himself to Moses, the Lord says: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love [Hesed] and faithfulness.” Exodus 34:6
And in Psalm 89, the Psalmist declares: “I will sing of the mercies [Hesed] of the Lord forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love [Hesed] stands firm forever…”
The basic gist of hesed is that God can always be counted on to act faithfully towards his own. He’s predisposed to be merciful. Israel has his heart.
Of course, God did have boundaries too. And at certain points in the covenant relationship, God applied those boundaries.
In the wilderness, for instance, God let a whole generation of people die. They did not see the promised land, because of their rebellion. And once in the promised land, God allowed the surrounding nations to attack Israel, whenever Israel succumbed to idolatry.
God never did forget the covenant he made to his people, however. Israel still has his heart. And always, at the slightest sign of repentance, he was quick to show mercy.
And when the time was right, God revealed to Israel and the world, the fullness of his mercy of love. More on that later.
But back to Jesus’ use of Hosea 6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The first time Jesus quoted this passage, he was eating a meal with Matthew, and Matthew’s tax collector buddies.
Tax collectors were despised in Jesus day. They were traitors. They took money from the Jews and gave it to the Romans.
Jesus saw Matthew sitting at his tax collector booth and he said, “Matthew, come follow me”. Matthew dropped his coins and followed Jesus.
Then Matthew brought Jesus to his house and he prepared a meal for Jesus. When the Pharisees saw Jesus breaking bread with traitors, they said to the disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus overheard the conversation and responded with this “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.” (Matthew 9:13)
In other words “you Pharisees are sure good at keeping the law. You’ve got the motions down to a science. But if you were close to the Lord, you’d know that God desires mercy and not sacrifice.”
The second time Jesus quotes Hosea, the Pharisees are at it again. This time, they are critiquing Jesus because Jesus allowed his disciples to pick heads of grain on the Sabbath.
Jesus answers the Pharisees critique with a few stories. And in his response he quotes from Hosea:“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:70)
Later that same day, Jesus came across a man with a shrivelled hand. Looking for a way to trap him, the Pharisees asked, “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
To this Jesus said: If one of your sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, you’d lift it out, right? Well how much more important is a person?
In other words, there is no law that restricts when mercy can be shown. Mercy’s a higher law.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
In the previous beatitude, we learned that God’s people are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These people are desperate for rightness to be restored in these four relationships. This is their burning passion.
And this is so important, right. Beatitude people long for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But the gap between being passionate for righteousness, and being a jerk about it is really not that big.
When I was in college, I was passionate about Social Justice. I spent half a year living in Central America, and there I had front row seats to poverty in all its ugliness. I came back to North America a changed person.
I dropped my old friends. They didn’t care about Justice. And I started hanging out with those who thought like me. And together, we looked down our noses and felt morally superior to everyone who didn’t think like us or care like us.
I would snap at my parents every now and again too. Because they weren’t measuring up to my standards of righteousness. Thankfully, my parents showed me mercy.
In so many ways, my 21 year old heart was hungering and thirsting for the right things. But I had become a Pharisee.
That’s not True Righteousness. True righteousness expresses itself in love for neighbour. True righteousness, while not ignoring the passion that things be made right, extends mercy.
To be merciful is to extend love, kindness, or compassion to a neighbour, especially to a neighbour that is in need.
Darell Johnson says that there is a negative and a positive side to mercy. (Keep slide up till next slide.)
On the negative side, mercy = not giving someone what they deserve.
If someone is guilty, their plea, in court, is that the judge will extend them mercy. “I know I’ve done wrong,” they say, “but please do not punish me to the full extent of the law. Be merciful.”
In scripture, God’s mercifulness is revealed in the fact that he does not treat us according to what our sins deserve. Instead, the just judge of the universe, extends mercy.
The scriptures are clear. The wages of human sin and rebellion is death and God-abandonment. But the gospel is that in Christ, God came into the world to absorb the punishment we deserved. The apostle Paul puts it like this: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He took what we deserved, so that we could be spared.
On the negative side, mercy is about not giving someone what they deserve. On the positive side, mercy = giving someone what they don’t deserve.
We see this aspect of mercy dramatically portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son.
This son blew it, and he knew it. When he asked for his inheritance, he was, in essence, wishing that his Father would drop dead. He wanted his Father’s money, but he didn’t want his Father.
So, when he returned from the far country, having squandered his inheritance, he didn’t know what to expect. His Father had every right to kill his rebellious son. Certainly a harsh punishment would have been appropriate.
But what does the Father do? Filled with compassion, he runs out to meet his wayward son. He hugs and kisses him. He puts a new robe on his back and a ring on his finger. And he throws his son the biggest party imaginable.
The son deserved death for his prideful rebellion. But instead, he received a banquet, and was restored to full sonship within his Father’s house.
Once again, God models this aspect of mercy best. In Jesus, not only are we spared the judgement that we deserved, but we are given a welcome that we don’t deserve. In Christ, we become children of God, and are given a prominent seat at the Lord’s Table.
So there’s a positive and a negative expression of mercy. But there’s also the simple, merciful act, of showing kindness and acting compassionately towards someone in need.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a good example of this.
A man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, said Jesus. Along the way, he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead along the side of the road.
Not long after, a priest happened to walk on by. But he moved to the other side of the road and ignored the man. After that, a Levite came along and he did the same thing.
But then, a Samaritan came. When he saw the roughed up man, he had compassion on him.
The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds. Then he put the man on his donkey and carried him to the nearest inn. Then the Samaritan man paid for the man’s room and told the innkeeper to take care of the man. “When I return,” he said, “I’ll pay for everything.”
Showing this kind of mercy is easy to talk about, but its harder in real life.
What if the man on the side of the road deserved the beating? What if he was a gambling addict who was roughed up because he couldn’t pay down his debts. How close do you want to get like someone like that. Would you give them a month’s wages, and your time, to nurse them back to health?
And there’s a risk too eh? To showing mercy. It might not be received the way you want it to be received. The man on the side of the road might curse you out. Or he might order expensive champagne and ordeurves, and charge it to your credit card.
When VCRC put together a refugee committee, we knew that there would be risks involved. What if the family we received was a radical muslim family. What if they had big financial debts and issues that would dog them and cripple us.
Mercy is risky. But beatitude people are willing to take the risk.
Jesus took the risk, didn’t he. Out of the overflow of the Father’s great mercy, and love, Jesus came to help. But he was misunderstood. Not received with gratitude. And made an outcast. And finally, he was stripped naked and nailed to a cross.
But he did all this willingly, so that his persecutors might become his brothers and sisters. There is no greater display of mercy.
At the heart of this beatitude is the reality that those who have received the mercy, begin to show mercy.
Its only as you come to discover the radical mercy God has shown you, that you can become someone who is capable of showing radical mercy.
Cruel and Ruthless people have not tasted and seen the Mercy of God. Un-merciful people will not be part of the Kingdom of God.
Of course, boundaries are still important. Its not merciful to give a drug addict a 50 dollar bill, for instance. Mercy can be shown to him/her in other, more wise ways.
And in addition to this, sometimes the merciful thing to do is to set up boundaries. If a brother or sister is on a path away from God or righteousness, for instance, the merciful thing to do is to point that out in a loving way. Sometimes, in the moment, that act of love won’t be received well. But one day, that friend may look back and say: “Thank you for taking the risk. I don’t know where I would have been if you hadn’t called me out.”
Gracious correction is an act of mercy.
Its true to say that merciful people are the salt of the earth. Like salt stops bacteria from growing in food, so the merciful remove toxins from human community. Blessed are they, says Jesus.
I wonder…. What might it look like for you to be merciful this week?
All of us have people in our life that seemingly deserve to be shunned, or punished, or ignored. Maybe there’s someone you need to forgive, that doesn’t deserve forgiveness.
Or, is there anyone in your life who currently stands in need of kindness or compassionate action?
I’d like to finish this sermon, by inviting you to join me in a contemplative prayer exercise. I’d like you to close your eyes.
Holy Spirit, we invite you to be our counsellor in these quiet moments of reflection. Open us up to the Father, and the Son, to ourselves, and to each other.
Son, daughter, you are my beloved? I knit you together in your mother’s womb. Soo good, I said over you.
Daugther, Son, For you, I came into the world. For you I lived and showed mercy. For you I suffered the darkness of calvary, and cried at the last, “it is finished.”
There is now no condemnation that you need fear.
And even now, risen and ascended, I am watching over you, interceding for you.
Mercy, upon Mercy. It will never stop. This is who I am.
Son, Daughter, will you share what you have received? With whom?
What brother or sister do you need to forgive this week? Imagine them. Remember that I made them and came into the world for them too. Release them. Forgive them.
What family member needs your patient kindness. Imagine them. What kind of mercy do they need this week?
What co-worker or neighbour is in need of kindness or compassion this week? Imagine them. How could you show them mercy this week?
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
My hunch is that some of you received clear instruction or a clear picture of what being merciful may look like for you this week.
I encourage you to be courageous and to take the risk. Risk mercy. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.