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?