Jesus must have been a wildly entertaining person to listen to. You never know what he is going to say. He could be blunt, “you brood of vipers!”. He could be challenging, “As the Father sent me so send I you.” He could be demanding, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” He could be uplifting, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He could be utterly disappointing, “I tell you the truth in [heaven] there will be no giving or taking of marriage.” (If any of you were married to my wife you would know why this disappoints me so). Jesus could also be confusing, saying something that you just know means more than what you initially understand. One such saying is when Jesus addresses the religious leaders of Israel in Matthew 9 saying to them, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Why must sacrifice and mercy by at odds?
Experimental Psychologist Richard Beck ran an experiment where he asked people to spit into a dixie cup. Then he asked them to drink their own spit. Absolutely disgusting, right? Why? We have spit in our mouths all the time and swallow it frequently without even thinking of it, so why does the idea of swallowing our own spit from a dixie cup disgust us? But something happens psychologically, says Beck, when the spit leaves our mouth. When it is not inside us any more but is outside us we become disgusted by it.
Disgust is all about setting boundaries. Disgust marks something as ‘outside’ and foreign. The second our spit leaves the boundaries of ‘self’ it becomes ‘other’.
Sacrifice also is all about marking boundaries. Sacrifice is about naming and claiming something as pure and holy. It is about admitting what is ‘clean’ and expunging what is ‘unclean.’ Mercy, on the other hand, crosses the boundary of purity. Mercy brings clean and unclean into contact. Perhaps this is the tension, why sacrifice and mercy are at odds with one another. You cannot both build a boundary and tear it down at the same time. Is this what Jesus was getting at when he talked to the pharisees? You gotta choose, which is it going to be? Building boundaries or ripping them down?
Is it possible that the tension between sacrifice and mercy is psychological? I have heard and used myself the popular Christian phrase, “hate the sin but love the sinner.” It sounds good theologically. But psychologically, how in the world is a person supposed to treat someone with empathy, love and tenderness while at the same time harboring moral outrage and indignation at that same person’s behavior? Is this even possible?
Take for example a current hot-button topic in our society and church – homosexuality. How well do we the church actually balance outrage and empathy over homosexuality? I would argue, not very well. The number one reason (according to Barna Research) people under 30 give for refusing to go to church is that “The church hates homosexuals.” Somehow the ‘hating the sin’ has become muddled quickly into hating the sinner. I saw it at the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Years day. The parade was preceded by a crowd of Christian Crazies bearing signs proclaiming, “God hates Fags.”
Now, most Christians would never propagate such a vicious lie. But that doesn’t mean that we also don’t struggle with preferring to erect boundaries rather than tear them down. We are comfortable with labeling experiences and things as secular and holy. We prefer sacrifice to mercy. We are lead in our faith by a psychology of disgust. Wanting to be apart from what might contaminate us.
Disgust might just be a leading influence amongst Christians in how we think about and experience holiness, sin and atonement. I wonder if it is entirely possible that we the church have drifted towards a theology and practice of faith that resonates with a psychological ‘feel’ of what is right and true. And this ‘feeling’ is largely influenced by what disgusts us.
I read this last week that a church hosted a fashion show complete with a runway and models and a big name designer and all this took place DURING A WORSHIP SERVICE. I was disgusted that a church of my own denomination would support an industry that does nothing to help positive body image and encourages opulence and do it during ‘holy’ time. But now I wonder, is that disgust I felt hospitable? Probably not. Maybe it is possible that in that blurring of the secular and sacred worlds God was worshipped in a unique and valuable way. Maybe.
Could this be what Jesus might be asking us to consider today as he asked the Pharisees to consider 2k years ago? That perhaps we need to leave our petty ideas of purity behind and embrace hospitality – the abolition of secular-holy, us-them, sinner-saint.
I admit that when I consider the Incarnation of our Lord I often dwell on the sacrifice God made for our sake. But perhaps that is incomplete theology. It must be balanced with the mercy that inspired his Incarnation. Perhaps the fulcrum of John 3.16 is “for God so loved” and the apogee of that love is “that he gave his only son.”