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”?

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