In various ways we can build walls that divide us from numerous other people. The result is a culture of us verses them, where this wrong is justified. What we are left with is an is what Miroslav Volf describes as a “glaring incongruity” where “in a world so manifestly drenched with evil everybody is innocent in their own eyes” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 79).
Then comes along Jesus who calls us to follow him and as we do, challenges us to break down these hostile divisions. Here is a challenging story about Jesus found in Matthew 9:9-13:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Most Christians are familiar with this story and Jesus’ saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” But I wonder… Have we really taken time to do just what Jesus says and “Go and learn what this saying means”?
Last summer after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across America. Regardless of what happened on August 9, 2014, the incident and the ensuing demonstrations showed that there was still much racial tension between Blacks and Whites. This had to do with the perceived feeling on the part of the Black community that they are still treated unfairly by Police and the White power establishment. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there normally is always a certain amount of truth to perception. Nevertheless, the situation created a politically hostile climate and threatened to create an “Us vs. Them” world. If you were on the side of the Darren Wilson and Law Enforcement then it seemed that you were against the Blacks. On the other hand, if you were on the side of the Blacks then it seemed as though you were against the Police and White people.
Here in Columbia, people joined in these protests. I was one of them and I took my daughter along with me. We joined with some from our community to say that “Black Lives Matter!” Believe it or not, I was told by one White person that I was being racist because I stood there peacefully demonstrating with other Black and White people. My daughter and I stayed at the demonstration for about two hours, where I engaged in several good conversations with some Black people about issues pertaining to racism and discrimination in America. At the demonstration, there were several Howard County Police officers present in order to make sure the demonstrations remained peaceful and lawful. So as my daughter and I were leaving, I walked up to the police officers and thanked them for doing a very difficult and underpaid job.
Why go and demonstrate with a community of Black people? Why stop and thank the police for doing their job? Here is why. Because I will let my Black Neighbors and my neighbors who serve as police officers become my enemy and become the “them.” It has nothing to do with my opinion of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and what has happened in other police shootings of Black men. It has everything to do with following Jesus and refusing to allow the barriers that society would like to build up define who I will fellowship with.
Following… Jesus or the Pharisees?
It seems that if we really are following Jesus, then we cannot just religiously talk about reconciliation. We must actually attempt to practice reconciliation which involves getting up and following Jesus into the homes where he eats with those people, the “tax-collectors and sinners,” who were excluded behind a barrier that his society had built. Jesus did this without ever endorsing or approving of any sin and so can we.
Our society is full of divisions where an “Us vs. Them” reality exists at some level… Blacks and Whites, Christians and Muslims, Liberals and Conservatives, etc… Too often we align ourselves with a version of “Us” and hedge the boundary lines. That’s not the way of Jesus. So what can we do?
- Option #1: As followers of Jesus we can actually follow Jesus among “Them” in order to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Remember, that Jesus’ practice of mercy is done among the sinners. The Kingdom of God was a space that had room for everyone, not just the righteous.
- Option #2: We can follow the Pharisees, justifying our exclusion of “Them” in order to maintain our own purified socio-religious and political enclave. Remember, the Pharisees read their Bible’s too and they had their reasons which sounded very biblical too (perhaps they even came replete with biblical proof-texts). Yet they were wrong!
When Jesus said, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” he really meant it and it is important that we honor his desire. But to do that, maybe instead of becoming quick to defend our religious freedom so that a pizza parlor doesn’t have to cater a gay wedding, we should instead pause and discern what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Or maybe, instead of becoming quick to defend our rights by joining in an online bullying campaign because some small town restaurant owner doesn’t share our same moral-political view, maybe we should learn what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice.
After all, Jesus did also say “Go and learn what this saying means…”