Jesus is the man with authority to speak a command and it happens. Unnumbered galaxies are flung into space, untold intricacies are embedded into genetic matter, and unseen power exorcises leprous sores and evil demons from hapless victims—at a word from Jesus.
We saw examples of this authority described in Matthew chapter eight—our Day 8 of ‘Twenty-eight Days With Jesus’. There is a sense of awe when thinking about the power and authority Jesus commands that inspires our respect. This is the fear of God we rightly have thinking about the ‘transcendence’ of His being—His existence transcends or goes beyond anything and everything we can imagine. He is completely other than us.
Day 9, by contrast, focuses on an attribute that complements Christ’s transcendence beautifully. We call it ‘immanence’. It means closeness, nearness, and accessibility. Reading Matthew chapter nine gives us a sense that Jesus really loves being with people, getting to the heart of their needs, and giving them more than they ever imagined was available. He is accessible to all.
For instance, right at the beginning of the chapter we see a group of men bringing with them a friend of theirs who is paralyzed and lying helplessly on a mat. I imagine the fellow has been jostled and jiggled relentlessly as his well-meaning friends have toted him across town in search of Jesus. The man is paralyzed, so he probably can’t keep his body balanced while his friends, grasping the corners of his mat, fail to notice him sliding one way or another in their quest to find the Healer.
It’s the town of Capernaum—a small seaside town—and when the men find Jesus they are relieved to catch His attention. I’m sure Jesus looks into each of their faces. He sees their hands supporting the mat on which their friend lies. He reads the hope in their eyes and looks even deeper, seeing the faith in their hearts that brings them to Him. Then he focuses on the invalid in the stretcher.
“Take heart, son,” Jesus tells the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven.”
Imagine the silence that follows. Stories of prophets healing people are recorded in the ancient Scriptures and news has spread that Jesus is a modern-day prophet who has been healing every sort of illness. But did He just say, “your sins are forgiven”? Forgiving sins is different. That’s God’s territory.
The Jewish elders recognize this religious faux pas immediately and begin to murmur, “blasphemy!” pegging Jesus an infidel and religious upstart. They don’t care at all about the paralyzed man, forgiven of sins or not, healed or not. They simply want to protect the status quo of their religion.
Jesus responds by saying two things to the uncaring spiritual gatekeepers. Firstly, He says, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home” (Matt.9:4-6). The man is healed and the elders are left speechless.
But Jesus is not finished with the religious naysayers yet. He goes on to direct them “…go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” There is a world of meaning in what Jesus reveals to these teachers who had become heartless in dealing with everyday people. God had intended their role to be leaders of people toward Himself but they had wrapped themselves up in the world of ceremonial acts: sacrifices and rituals emptied of relational significance. Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea who saw the same error in the Jewish priests eight hundred years earlier.
What God had clarified back then was that He doesn’t want ritual sacrifice for the sake of ritual. He wants people who love Him for who He is, and He wants people to love others precisely because they are made in God’s image. Jesus reminds the teachers of the law of these verses. He brings these ancient words to their attention because these ‘law-keepers’ had forgotten about the law of love and they had no idea about mercy.
Mercy means recognizing every person’s inherent value and not holding social position or personal situation to account. It means empathizing with people—especially the needy—and showing compassion even when it appears like people don’t deserve it. It means looking reality in the face and doing everything possible to bring healing into others’ lives.
Mercy epitomizes Jesus. Nothing is hidden from Him—not sins needing forgiveness, not heart-wounds needing healing, not superficiality needing to be replaced with authenticity. And mercy, explains Jesus, needs to epitomize each of us. Period. No excuses. No rituals will replace it. Just go, learn it, and do it.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
(Photo Credit: 100203-N-6214F-049 CAP HAITIEN, Haiti (Feb. 3, 2010) A Hatian boy takes his first steps on his crutches with the support of a nurse after having a leg amputated at the Milot Hospital. Several U.S. and international military and non-governmental agencies are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake caused severe damage in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti Jan. 12. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel/Released))