We all know how the gospel of Matthew ends: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go into all the world, making disciples…” These verses, are less well known. “Woe to you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! You cross land and sea to make a single covert and make the new convert twice the child of hell as yourselves” (Mt. 23:15). It would appear that Jesus is after something more than missionary zeal.
I heard Andre Resner say at a conference awhile back that the Pharisees problem stems from the fact that they ignored the first great commission in Matthew. In chapter 9, Jesus commissions them to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Learning mercy, not sacrifice, according to Resner, is the first great commission in Matthew. It’s what allows us to make disciples in the way of Jesus, and what keeps us from making children of hell.
Just a few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus instructs the scribes and Pharisees concerning work on the Sabbath. The disciples, who are hungry, are plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus tells them that, “if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless’” (Mt 12:7). Jesus interprets the Scriptures better than the Pharisees because he knows the priority of the heart of God–mercy, not sacrifice.
This exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees highlights a tension found throughout Scripture, and certainly one prominent among the OT prophets. Brueggemann describes this tension in terms of mercy or justice and purity. These two themes do not always sit well easily, and for the prophets and subsequently for Jesus, when the purity tradition leads the heart of God is lost.
In Matthew, mission depends on knowing what this means. My sense is that too often our zeal for mission is rooted in the purity tradition, not in the way of mercy. I hope to say more about this in future posts.
As we consider our place in God’s mission, we must do more than cite the Great Commission. This is one reason why we have chosen the theme, Mercy, Not Sacrifice, for our ministry conference, Streaming, June 18-20. Not only will we hear from Brueggemann and Richard Beck, but New Testament scholar Greg Stevenson will talk about the theme of mercy in Matthew’s gospel. Hope you will join us for this rich conversation.