(Thanks to Richard Beck for his extensive work on this topic. I highly recommend his book: “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality & Mortality”)
First let’s look at the NRSV:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It’s simply not possible to know exactly what is at work here in this short text without understanding the Jewish world that Jesus is entering. For centuries there had been two trajectories within the Jewish framework – the Purity tradition characterized by the Priestly concern for holiness, and the Justice tradition characterized by the prophetic concern for mercy. Walter Brueggemann explores these traditions in his book “Theology of the Old Testament.” Brueggemann says:
“The purity and justice trajectories of command serve very different sensibilities and live in profound tension with each other. The tradition of justice concerns the political-economic life of the community and urges drastic transformative and rehabilitative activity. The tradition of holiness focuses on the cultic life of the community and seeks a restoration of a lost holiness, whereby the presence of God can again be counted on and enjoyed.”
Jesus comes in the tradition of the prophets, siding with mercy. But he does so as the true High Priest. If you have followed the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel up to this point, you get the sense that everything is changing. We are about to discover why Jesus has the authority to say mercy trumps purity.
Now consider N.T. Wright’s rendering of this passage:
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office. ‘Follow me!’ he said to him. And he rose up and followed him. When he was at home, sitting down to a meal, there were lots of tax-collectors and sinners there who had come to have dinner with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw it they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus heard them. ‘It isn’t the healthy who need a doctor,’ he said; ‘it’s the sick. Go and learn what this means: It’s mercy I want, not sacrifice. My job isn’t to call upright people, but sinners.'”
Jesus is straightforward. He wants mercy, not sacrifice. But why does he choose the word ‘sacrifice?’ Of all the words that characterize the priestly tradition (holiness, purity, morality, cleanliness), why ‘sacrifice?’ There are not any goats or lambs being offered as sacrifice in this text? Jesus is referring to the entire sacrificial system as inadequate to deal with sin. He has come to be himself the slaughtered lamb, the “sacrifice to end all sacrifices” (another topic indeed).
So, he says, mercy is what he requires. No longer is purity or holiness to trump mercy and justice. The prophets have been saying it for centuries (Isaiah 1, Amos 5, Micah, Habakkuk). Indeed, the prophets were abused, slandered, persecuted and even killed for saying it. Moreover, Jesus himself will ultimately have his own blood shed because of it. And now he stands as the Prophet, the High Priest, and proclaims it again on behalf of Israel, for the world: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
And here is the bottom line for us followers of Jesus today. If our own concern for morality, purity, holiness, right-ness, and religious sacrifice interfere with our ability to enact mercy, justice, compassion, and love… then we have radically missed the point of the entire gospel. Indeed, we don’t truly know Jesus.