Sunday School Lessons

Mercy vs. Religious Ritual

Do you ever feel like you are just “turning the crank”?  To me, this phrase evokes the idea of standing at the side of a machine, laboring to keep it running through manual effort, so that something can take place (maybe making widgets, or just keeping the machine running).

It’s true that sometimes we need to do things that are repetitive (or even boring).  The fact is, life isn’t always about doing things that are fun, novel, or exciting.  There are days when we just keep doing the same thing, whether because we need to, we don’t know any better, or we have just gotten into the habit of doing so.

Our senior minister once described this in a sermon as “grinding”, a term that I like because it’s used in video games when the player must do the same thing over and over again.  I envision Samson feeling like this during the time described in Judges 16:21, when he had to grind grain after being captured by his enemies.  While he may not have been “leveling up his character” in the sense of a video game, his character does seem to have grown a little bit while he was in prison.

Let’s take a look at a couple of verses from Matthew chapter 9:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew 9:12‭-‬13 NIV

https://bible.com/bible/111/mat.9.12-13.NIV

To set the context: earlier in this chapter, Jesus had just healed a man spiritually (from his sins), then physically (from being paralyzed).  Jesus also called a tax collector (Matthew, the author of this gospel), and then attended a dinner with not only tax collectors, but plenty of other people who weren’t necessarily popular in society.

Jesus was a healer, but He understood that sick people value the benefit of healing more than those who are healthy.  And, those who realize that they are sick (especially when they appreciate their spiritual sickness) are more likely to listen to Jesus’ message of hope and salvation, as compared to those who think that they can get into Heaven because they are “good enough” (or, not as bad as “those other people”).

Along the same lines, we’ve all probably known people who didn’t know that they were sick, and let it progress until things got pretty bad (sometimes tragically so).  This is the reason why the message of sin (i.e., the bad news) is an important part of the message when people are told the good news about Jesus.  The cure makes sense once the diagnosis is clear.

The quote in verse 13 is from the book of Hosea (according to the footnote, it’s specifically from the Greek translation of Hosea 6:6), and I think that it speaks to both the first-century Pharisees, as well as to us, in a couple of ways:

First, mercy is appropriate for us to extend.  That person who did something really bad to us: we should show mercy.  Someone who really hurt us: we should show mercy.  The group or political party that ruined your life: we should show mercy.  This doesn’t mean that we always put ourselves in harm’s way again, but if Jesus forgave those who crucified Him, and offers salvation to His persecutors, can’t we at least come a little closer to that ideal?

Secondly, having an appearance of religion isn’t good enough.  The Pharisees had a lot to show for themselves, but doing a bunch of “religious things” is no substitute for showing mercy to other people.  If we can’t find agape love in our hearts for some groups of people, we may be falling short of Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5:44-45.

Here’s where I’d like to remind us about the illustrations at the start of this article.  The “sacrifices” that were being performed by those in Jesus’ day (as well as Hosea’s) had – in at least some cases – been reduced to rote religion.  Of course, the Law of Moses was good, but merely following rules (i.e., just “turning the crank”) missed the point of God’s instructions for what His called-out (i.e., holy) people should live like.  God’s commandments to the Israelites weren’t just arbitrary rituals to show that they were part of some elite “club”.  Instead, they were indications of what it meant to serve Him, and to do things that pleased Him.

If one studies the Law of Moses (from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, for instance), we find that God clearly called for mercy to be shown.  There was justice to be done, yes, but there was also a lot of caring for the disadvantaged.  In the first century, when supposedly strict practitioners made a show of following the law ceremonially, but made loopholes to not care for others, they had clearly missed the point.

In the same way, we still have the same temptations today.  When we consider selective commandments from God to be the extent of His goals for us, and miss the heart of God that He shares (through His word, His example, and His guidance), we are truly just “turning the crank” of so-called religion.  Instead, God calls us to a different kind of walk, which includes caring for others, even – or perhaps especially – the downtrodden, the unpopular, and the outcasts.  (See James 1:22-27, for instance.)

So, if your walk with Jesus seems a little boring, take some time to read through His message again (especially passages like Matthew 5-7).  Start to appreciate His attitude and His love for others, then follow His example by showing mercy and grace (with truth) to other people.  I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be boring!


From Sunday School lesson prepared for April 11, 2021

References:

  • Christian Standard, Volume CLVI, Number 4, pages 85-86. © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  • The College Press Commentary, Matthew, by Larry Chouinard.  College Press Publishing Company, © 1997, p.167-174.

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