Mercy and not sacrifice

A student writing about Matthew’s use twice of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (a variation on Hos 6:6), rather than write an exegetical forum post about the verse in the context of Matthew’s story, wrote about his own struggles with feeling like he spends a lot of time “sacrificing” by focusing on education but not much time “doing mercy” by actually acting on what he is learning. He is rightly concerned about this seeming imbalance. I wrote:

I think too, though, that the point in the context of Mt’s story has great applicability for us. The Pharisees were great at sacrificing–denying themselves things by scrupulously keeping the law. (Think about the “you tithe dill and mint and cumin” from ch. 23.) What they were lousy at was showing mercy to those around them.

Sometimes within Christian culture it is easier and safer to “sacrifice” (do those churchily approved things that look like we are devoting ourselves to God) than to actually get our hands messy with people who don’t measure up–the people who really need mercy (and the issue of eating with sinners is exactly the context in Mt)–especially when that might make US look bad. OR be inconvenient. Or be upsetting to people.

And I think it *is* as you say all about moving from some sort of intellectual assent to the *idea* of mercy to some sort of actual extending of mercy to those who need it–whether they are the sort of people the church has traditionally called sinners or whether it is just those people that we find it very hard to be merciful to (and sometimes that is *most* the people within the church). Will we preserve our pious appearance of sacrificial devotion to God or will we enact mercy in ways that Christ did?


A brief summary of genres present in the gospels

The Sayings of Jesus

  • Authoritative Sayings—Most of these seem to have been collected in the Q source and are then configured in different ways in Mt and Lk (and to a lesser extent Mk) in order to either comment on a story in some way or, in the case of the SM for example, are collected into Jesus’ longer teaching sections.
    • Logia (wisdom sayings)—“The eye is the lamp of the body,” “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out,” etc.
    • Prophetic and Apocalyptic Sayings—Brief sayings that proclaim the arrival of the Reign of God, call for repentance, promise salvation, and threaten the unrepentant.  Examples include the description of the coming era (Matt. 11:5-6/Luke 7:22-23), the Beatitudes, the destruction of the Temple, the “woes” to the Pharisees and scribes in Mt 23.
    • Legal sayings and Church rules—these sayings deal with topics like purity, divorce, prayer, giving to the poor, fasting, etc.
    • Parables

Narrative Material

  • Controversy and Teaching Dialogues—Both of these serve a teaching function but the context (controversy vs. genuine questioning for enlightenment or more neutral questioning rather than obvious wrangling)
    • Controversy stories—Usually with scribes and Pharisees
      • Occasioned by Jesus’ healings—e.g. Mk 3:1-6, the healing of the math with the withered hand.  Jesus’ saying, “is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil?” (v. 4) cannot be isolated from the rest of the story.
      • Occasioned by conduct of Jesus or the disciples—Mk 2:23-28 (plucking grain on the Sabbath)
    • Teaching Dialogues
      • The Master is questioned—Mk 10:17-31 (the Rich young man), Mt 24:3 (“When will the and what will be the sign of your coming and the close of the age?”), Jn 9:2 (“Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”)
      • Questions asked by opponents—Mk 10:2-12 (Divorce), “Whose wife will she be at the Resurrection?”, etc.
  • Miracle Stories—these include various healings, exorcisms, raising the dead, and nature miracles
    • Healings—e.g. Mk 1:21, the healing in the synagogue; or  This usually contains four parts:
      • 1) The condition is described (often duration or severity is highlighted), 2) the healing, 3) the witnesses marvel and the healed one gives a clear demonstration that he or she is healed (in exorcisms the demons do something naughty)
    • Nature miracles—e.g. Mk 4:37-41, calming the storm, etc.  “The miraculous deeds are not proofs of his character but of his messianic authority, or his divine power” (Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 219)
    • Exorcisms—Mk 5 (the Gerasene demoniac), etc. Usually have a similar structure to healings (and there is often overlap because demons in the NT make people ill, they don’t make them do evil things, contrary to our idea of being “possessed”) but these stories show Jesus’ authority over the supernatural world (as nature miracles show his authority over the natural world).
    • “Personal” miracles—Feeding of the Thousands, Walking on the Water. These stories usually highlight Jesus’ character (generally, like “merciful,” or his similarity to OT figures like Moses or David or Elijah) or his status as superhuman Son of God, worthy of awe.
  • Narrative Stories
    • Biographical stories—birth, the baptism, transfiguration, post-resurrection stories. These lend a biographical framework and also are points for each of the Gospel authors to emphasize some aspect of his understanding of who Jesus is.
    • Travel/action passages or summaries— “And Jesus left that place and traveled…..” “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity,” etc. These provide the narrative “stitching” that links the longer stories into a continuous narrative.
    • The Passion narratives—The sequence and details of the events recorded in these (at least up through the burial) are so similar that this must have come together very early on in the oral tradition as the core story of the early church and the center of its preaching.

Fiction, History, Parable, and Parabolic Event

[With this I begin a series where I share with you some responses I am making to students’ questions and forum posts.]

A student asked about the implication made by some authors we were reading that the Gospel of Matthew contains fictional elements.

Coming from a conservative background, the student was bothered by the possible unreliability of Gospel, but also wanted to hear more about why scholars might say this and also why they might find it to be, in general, not completely problematic. Below is my all-too-brief response:

I wonder if the category of “fiction” is perhaps both anachronistic and also (because of that) misleading when talking about the Bible generally and the Gospels particularly. Certainly the Gospel writers did not think they could simply make up episodes and pass them off as things that had happened.

But we have things like the parables which are certainly “fictional” stories (none of them happened as far as we know) and yet they are counted as true. To recognize that ancient people had a more fluid idea of what was an acceptable way to report an event is simply to accept the Bible that we actually have–one where the boundary between a true parable and a true historical event was not as sharply delineated or enforced as we would have it.

For example, when we read in a few weeks the story of Jesus healing two blind men just before entering Jerusalem, I will ask you to note that in Mark’s version of the story, there is only one blind man. So, on strictly historical grounds, either Mk or Mt is untrue. Now, if we have very strict categories about these things, then this will cause a problem–but that would be imposing our 20th and 21st century ideas onto to the Bible in a way that probably would have seemed odd to the biblical authors.

For them, an event could function like a parable. (Think back to the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah who often did particular actions in order to metaphorically convey a message.) In the same way, it was not considered deceitful to change some details of an event to make the meaning and importance–the parabolic message, if you will–of that event clear.

So then you have to ask, what message, what truth, is being conveyed beyond the mere historical occurrence. That doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t walk on water or didn’t miraculously feed thousands, but if we get fixated on trying to suss out what actually happened, we’ll miss what the Gospel writers are trying to say about Jesus and God and us and how those all relate.