Where did Jesus learn mercy? (Matthew 9:13)

Why did Jesus accept people when other leaders of his day wanted to cut them off?

Open Matthew 9:13.

One evening after work, a bunch of disreputable people were laughing and drinking shamelessly over their evening meal. It was exactly the kind of influence Israel didn’t need, so some Pharisees approached to name and shame them. Normally that would have broken up their unholy dinner party and send them slinking off into the darkness, but tonight one of these “disreputables” rises to his feet to defend his friends. It’s Jesus!

Suddenly, the tables are turned. Instead of dispersing the sinners’ party, it’s the Pharisees who are sent away in shame: “Go and learn what this is: ‘I want mercy, not sacrifice.’”

That’s the definitive difference between Jesus and the religious leaders. They thought the disreputables needed to be sacrificed, to get rid of the blockage preventing the restoration of Israel as God’s kingdom. Jesus extended mercy to them, making them his friends.

Powerful leaders normally focus their energies on the influencers, but Jesus spent his time with disreputables. Aren’t they the traitors to God’s cause, the lawless who refuse his authority? What kind of king wants rebels as friends? His approach flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

Where did Jesus get such an idea? His quotation is a clue.

Even before God’s representative kingdom fell apart in Old Testament times, God had a problem with his people being unfaithful to him. He called the prophet Hosea, whose home life enacted the tragedy God experienced with Israel — an unfaithful wife. God called Hosea to go the second mile, to reach out and retrieve his unfaithful partner. Hosea would have been quite within his rights to ask for a divorce, to cut off his wife. Yet Hosea held out extraordinary kindness. “I want mercy, not sacrifice” was the message of Hosea’s life.

That doesn’t look at all like what the Pharisees were doing. But it does explain why the heavenly king is sitting at table with the sinners. He wants them to know their God. And the only way they can know their sovereign and experience his astounding mercy is if God is embodied among them.

Just as Hosea had done, Jesus plans to take on himself the unfaithfulness of God’s people. He himself will enter into their rejection. In a sense, he will be sacrificed to bring them back, as the expression of God’s mercy. He will be struck down, and on the third day he will be raised. He will be the embodiment of God’s mercy.

When Jesus chose that verse from Hosea to explain his ministry, I wonder how much of the surrounding context he had in mind? Israel had been cut off from God’s kingship, but Hosea declared that this was only a temporary situation, that on the third day God would raise them up. I wonder if Jesus understood the divine mercy he embodied as taking on Israel’s unfaithfulness and experiencing their exile into death so as to raise up the people of God? What do you think?

Hosea 6:1–6 (ESV)
1 “Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3 Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”
4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Like Jesus, and Hosea before him, we’re called to embody divine mercy. Even if it costs our reputation. Even if it costs our life.


What others are saying

Tri Robinson and Jason Chatraw, Jesus in the Mirror: Living a Life That Truly Reflects Him (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012):

The way that Jesus embodied mercy rattled the religious leaders. … We would do well to remember Jesus’ model of how to extend grace and mercy.

When we show people kindness, we present them with a clearer image of the heart of Jesus. Instead of Christians being repulsive, suddenly they appear attractive. No one wants to join a group of people who are corporately unkind, but when someone encounters a person marked by kindness, he or she wants to draw near and learn the secret. “How can you be so unbothered when people do wrong to you?” the inquirer demands to know. “Why don’t you get revenge?” When you answer truthfully about how God transformed—and continues to transform—your life, you pave the way for His kindness to lead the seeker to repentance as well.

Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 51:

God therefore gives clear instruction about just what is desired from his covenant folk, verse 6. He wants ḥesed, “covenant loyalty” (NIV: mercy) and not daily sacrifices, daʿat ʾelōhîm, “knowledge of God” (NIV: acknowledgment of God) and not burnt offerings. In short, Yahweh wants his wife Israel’s heart, or his son Israel’s loyalty, bound to him in trust and love and faithfulness. No sacrifice, no ritual repentance can substitute for that intimate relation of cleaving to God. And of course what God desires, and not what human beings desire, finally determines the destiny of all peoples.

[previous: Meditating on mercy]

[next: Managing criticism]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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