Who does that sentence bring to mind? Some would point to different political and social cohorts. Others might point to external threats. Still others might think of certain kinds of criminals. But either way, it’s an expression that invites contempt.
In Jesus’ day the group that inspired this kind of sentiment was the tax collectors. Most Israelites (with the exception of the Sadducees) saw them as the people who were ruining Israel. They were extorting money from the struggling, hard-working populace and giving it to a Roman government that cruelly oppressed them – forcing them to carry their loads at times (as in Matthew 5:41) and even killing them with violent crucifixions.
But it’s interesting that Jesus treated these people with mercy rather than contempt. A good example is in Matthew 9:9-13. Jesus first invited the tax collector Matthew to become one of His disciples. Then He spent some time around other tax collectors and sinners. When questioned by the Pharisees for this, He responded by pointing them to Hosea 6:6 in the Bible, which says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
I’ve noticed that the Bible verses that are most engrained in my mind are the ones that come to mind when I’m being questioned, criticized, or am otherwise put under fire. Jesus was under fire a couple of times when he quoted Hosea 6:6, so it must’ve been an especially formative verse for Him.
The other time was when He was being scrutinized for not making His disciples follow Sabbath rules as strictly as the Pharisees thought they should be followed. In Matthew 12:1-8 He was questioned for allowing His disciples to get food from the open fields when they were hungry on the Sabbath. Some people think it’s always real important to follow all the rules. To Jesus the most important thing was mercy in terms of meeting human needs. So again He told them to learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6 – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus’ culminating discourse against the Pharisees is in Matthew 23:1-36. There He also emphasized mercy, basically saying that these very religious people were majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors. That is, they were focusing on trivial religious minutiae while neglecting the more important things like mercy (vv. 23-24).
All of this came to mind recently as we looked at the 5th beatitude (in Matthew 5:7): “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” This is all very counter-cultural today. John MacArthur said that in our day people would likely say, “Be merciful to someone and he’ll step on your neck!” Brian McLaren said a popular modern beatitude might be, “Blessed are the bold and vengeful, for they will be feared.”
But Jesus shows us something better than what the world typically offers. We stand to bring mercy to a merciless world, and it’s all based on the grace of God. Mindful of all the debts that we all owe (cf. Matthew 18:21-35), we are then empowered to be merciful towards the debts of others. This is what builds a godliness that has mercy just as our heavenly Father has mercy (cf. Luke 6:36, Matthew 5:48).
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor
First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.