I have one particular quote on my bulletin board above my desk that frequently convicts me, it is from W.E. Sangster:
“I’m not interested to know if you can set the Thames on fire. What I want to know is this: If I picked you up by the scruff of the neck and dropped you into the Thames, would it sizzle?”
I wrote about this awhile back and noted this: The folks in Matthew 7 set the world on fire (Lord, Lord, didn’t we…) but they didn’t sizzle (depart from me I never knew you). Jesus wants sizzling servants not “successful” glory-stealers. This serves as a constant reminder to a busy pastor and seminary student that what God desires more than anything from me is a steadfast love for Him. God desires that my every affection be captivated by Him.
But it’s really from the lips of Jesus that I am most convicted (and rightly so):
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Here in Matthew 9 Jesus calls Matthew the…hold back the puke and revulsion…tax collector. And Matthews only fitting response to following Jesus is to throw a party. Not many people but fellow scum and sinners would attend. So here we have Jesus and his disciples “reclining” with tax collectors and sinners.
The religious leaders are indignant. You don’t associate yourself with sinners. To do such a thing can make you ritually unclean, or worse yet just like those sinners. In the Pharisees mind, Jesus and his disciples are in serious danger of invoking the wrath of Yahweh.
You can see where the Pharisees get this though. Consider Ezra 9. Here we see a strong rebuke from the Lord because the Israelites are intermarrying with sinful nations. They are to be a people that are holy and distinct. To intermarry is to mar that distinction and blur the lines between the people of Yahweh and the sinful nations.
So the Pharisees aren’t just making this stuff up and hating on the tax collectors simply because they don’t sit at the cool kids table. They loath these tax collectors and sinners because they are convinced that not only the Old Testament but Yahweh Himself teaches them to do such a thing.
Of course Jesus sees things differently. Here he quotes Hosea 6:6 and says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’”. The problem that Ezra faced was not only that people were intermarrying. The problem that Ezra faced is that people did not have strong affections for Yahweh and they were lusting after foreign women and their gods. The problem wasn’t a law problem—it was a heart problem.
And as He always does, Jesus cuts straight to the heart. What the Lord desires is steadfast love and not simple rule following. The Pharisees kept all the rules (they did their quiet times, they tithed their spice rack, they didn’t smoke, drink, chew, or go with girls that do). But the Pharisees never learned what mercy meant. Matthew did. And that is why he threw a party for the only people he knew—sinners.
So, on this day I pray that the Lord teaches me anew what it means that He desires mercy and not sacrifice. Jesus wants me to sizzle more than he wants me to “do” things.
Teach me again today, dear Lord, what it means that you desire steadfast love and not rote rituals.