But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
It’s curious that when we speak of the “will of God,” we are more likely to get into philosophical arguments about the way the universe works than we are to focus on the heart of God.
Here, in Matthew 9, Jesus uses conflict over his treatment of “sinners” to make a profound statement not about sovereignty or free will or predestination but simply about what God wants.
This in itself tells us something about God. God is a God who desires. Jesus presents us not with a distant Sovereign manipulating the universe in some cold and calculated manner but with a warm God with wants and wishes and things he wills.
What God Desires
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus declares. “‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”
We’ve explored the background to Matthew 9:10-13 in the previous three posts. So we know that here, at Matthew’s dinner table, Jesus stands as God returned to Israel — the bridegroom of Hosea, spurned and cast off by a faithless wife whom he yet loves.
As Hosea prophesied, in the person of Jesus, God has come like the rain to a dry land, and his heart invites sinners to return to him.
Because he wants it.
The desire of God is for restoration with all who have wandered away from him, with those who have sinned egregiously against him, and with those whose adoration he ought never to have lost.
This is his will and his desire:
God wants the sick and broken to be healed.
He wants the lost, the rebellious, and the apostate to come home.
He could demand sacrifice. He could demand appeasement, payment, and restitution. But instead he wants to show mercy.
The Great Wish of God
The Hebrew word for “desire” used in Hosea 6:6 and quoted by Jesus means to be pleased with something, to want it, to delight in it. God’s desire for mercy and not sacrifice is a heart-wish; something he truly wants.
In so many ways, I think we struggle to understand this. Even when we return to God and repent of our sins, we come apologetically, ashamed. Even as children of God, we so often come cringing.
And yet God wants us. That’s why the way to him is open. Because it is his desire for us to be restored to relationship with him.
The Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners and were offended. More than that, they felt Jesus was offending God. He was throwing in his lot with traitors and apostates.
In fact, Jesus was calling those traitors and apostates home, and he was doing it in the name of God and in the heart of God. He was sharing his own life with them so that they might find their way home again.
Not in the Way of Other Gods
Other gods want to be appeased.
When we wrong them, they demand we come crawling back with a sacrifice. It is not enough for us simply to feel sorry; we must pay for our sins.
Every mythological pantheon is full of such gods. They reign over long past ages of mankind, bloodier and crueler times. Once we get past the romance of Thor and Zeus and Apollo, we might remember what they were really like and shudder.
Yet they reign in our minds too. They tell us that God must be angry, that he must need appeasing. That he must want us to do something heroic or terrible, something to atone for our sins.
These gods who still whisper in our ears tell us we are never really forgiven, that we can never really be healed. They tell us we have gone too far and done too badly. They tell us to try harder, work more consistently, sacrifice more, fast, pray, flagellate.
Yet the God of the Bible never asks anyone to atone for their own sins. Never once does he demand some great act of appeasement. His summoning to sinners is always the same: repent from the heart, and return. Come back to the God whose arms are open.
Even the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were about fellowship with a God of love, a God who provided a way of atonement that was accessible to all. They were about worship, thanksgiving, and grace.
Coming Home Again
If the voices of the old gods are terrible, demanding that we do the impossible to appease an angry God and atone for ourselves, the voice of modernity is perhaps worse. It tells us the opposite: that we have never wronged God, that he is not in fact a brokenhearted bridegroom with any real complaint against us.
Here is why Christianity is right to insist that all people recognize themselves as sinners: Not because God is angry and wants us to suffer for our sins, but because he deserves all our love, worship, and adoration, and he wants fellowship and relationship with us, and we have withheld our hearts, denied him our trust, and worshipped vain, petty, and empty things as god. We have made golden calves out of things that abuse us and adored them in place of our Father.
The amazing thing is that this relationship can be healed. If we are willing to come back, God is willing to take us.
As Jesus reminded the Pharisees in quoting Hosea 6, God is a faithful and forgiving bridegroom whose beloved has cared nothing for him. But in Hosea’s story, it was not the unfaithful wife who somehow paid for her unfaithfulness and convinced Hosea to take her home. Rather, after his wife had run away from him, Hosea paid to redeem her from her enemies and bring her back to his home and his faithful love.
In a great twist, it is not we who offer a sacrifice great enough to make up for our sins and to reconcile us to God.
Rather, it is God who makes the sacrifice, choosing to give his own life for the sake of humanity — for the sake of relationship with each one of us.
This is the principle of “mercy and not sacrifice” taken to its furthest possible extreme; and in a strange and piercing turn of history, it has happened.
The unimaginable is part of our history. We have abandoned God, but he has paid the highest price to bring us home — not because he had to, but because he desired us.
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This is Part 121 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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