When religious zeal leads us astray

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Matthew 9:13  NIV

In my daily reading this morning these simple words of Jesus “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” arrested my attention.  They are a direct quote from the Old Testament given in answer to a question posed by the Pharisees who were asking Jesus’ disciples why He was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus had been invited to a dinner party thrown by Matthew, himself a tax collector, who had recently left his profession to follow Jesus.  It must have been quite a gathering, made up primarily of all Matthew’s non-religious friends given with the intent of introducing them to Jesus.

The quote gave me pause because I realized how deceptively easy it is to substitute religion for relationship, ritual for righteousness and profession for practice.  In many ways the Pharisees, who were zealous for God and the teachings of the law, are no different than most Christians, myself included, who have a similar zeal to please God and be people of the Book.  They got so caught up in their religious practices that they neglected the greater importance of extending God’s mercy to those who needed it.  So what will keep us from falling into the same self-centered and self-righteous pit the Pharisees fell into? 

Like the Pharisees whom Jesus urged to “go and learn what this means” we need to be diligent to do the same.  What does it mean that God desires mercy much more than sacrifice?  What does it mean that He has not “come to call the righteous, but sinners”?

The passage of scripture that Jesus quotes give us some critical insight:  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)  The “acknowledgement of God” here literally means “knowing God.”  In other words, the better we know God and discover His amazing nature and character, the more we will understand the intentions of His heart.  And His heart is a heart of compassion that longs to show mercy to people.  That is why God the Father sent Jesus to reach out to and call sinners, the distant and the disillusioned, to Himself.  That is why Jesus came not to condemn people but to save them. (John 3:17)

The more we understand and put this truth into practice, that God desires mercy, the less chance we have of becoming a Pharisee and the more we will become like Him.  As an aside, the atrocities throughout church history, perpetrated in the name of Christianity, can be attributed directly to religious zeal gone astray in setting aside mercy for sacrifice.  As a result they were a misrepresentation of both the Scriptures and the purpose for which Jesus came to earth.

And so my prayer this morning is: “Lord, help me translate your mercy into action.  Grace me to be quick to forgive the offenses of others today.  Deliver me from every judgmental and condemning thought.  Give me your heart of love for those who are not like me and may disagree with me, for those who do not know you and may even oppose you.  Make me sensitive to their needs, and to the Holy Spirit, so that I may be an instrument of yours to meet those needs with your love. Amen.”

I welcome your observations, comments and additions to this conversation.

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