“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt 9:13 (NIV)
I have read this verse many times, but always in passing, because I have never been able to identify with the Pharisees. They were upset that Jesus was breaking bread with people who were, to the religious elite of Jesus' time, social outcasts. The Pharisees' quest for perfection under the law caused them to look with disdain at sinners. Having dinner with someone implied a deep association, in Jesus' culture. They were enraged that he would connect himself to those who, they assumed, would burn in hell for their sins. I've always identified more with the sinners than the Pharisees, to be honest. I've never felt myself above associating with sinners -- the world and the church are both filled with them.
But then I stopped, read the passage again, and realized I was missing something deeper. In this passage is revealed the heart of God.
God desires mercy, not sacrifice. This is a quote from Hosea 6:6, and it's not just telling us that God wants us to love people more than he wants us to observe ritual holiness. It's telling us that his deepest desire, the thing that is most important to him in all the world, is that people come to him, experience his love, and find themselves washed clean. It's not only a message to us, it is a message for us. God is a God of mercy. He doesn't want perfection, he wants his children to experience his forgiveness and to draw near.
When I was growing up, I found myself at times too afraid to tell my parents about things I had done wrong. I was worried about being punished, and I was worried about losing their love. So instead I didn't go to them, didn't talk with them, and toughed it out on my own, living with some guilt but feeling like I had no other option.
We do the same thing with God. We picture his holiness, and think he must hate us for our failure. We find ourselves separated from him as a result of disobedience, and feel like we can never live up to his expectations. Nothing could be more false. No sin can ever lose his love for us. He wants us to turn away from what we're doing wrong, but only because he wants us to experience the fullness of life that knowing him brings -- in all that we do, and in all that we are. He is the God of mercy. That is good news for all of us, both for those of us who already know him and those who don't but will find their way to him one day. "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness" (Lam 3:22-23; KJV).