“I desire mercy.” Go and learn…

In describing the miracles of Jesus, John Dominic Crossan argued in his book Jesus (1989) that Jesus’ was acting “as an alternative boundary keeper in a way subversive to the established procedures of his society” (82). Jesus was not so much a miracle worker as a healer, and healing was not so much the curing of a medical disorder but the redrawing of social boundaries. In other words, Jesus’ healings were a further act of the declaration to those who had been labeled worthless that they were not worthless, but rather, that just like Jesus, they were “the beloved of God.”

In the Gospel of  Matthew, after Jesus preaches his charter for an alternative community in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes about healing and drawing large crowds. He redraws the social boundaries by extending a healing touch to restore a leper (8:1-4); healing a centurion’s slave (8:5-13); healing Peter’s mother-in-law; and exorcising demoniacs (8:28-34; also 8:17). When some men bring a paralytic to Jesus and Jesus speaks authoritative words of forgiveness, his critics (this time they are scribes) accuse him of blasphemy (9:3). After calling Matthew–a tax collector–to join him and his disciples, Jesus sat down with him and the other disciples for a meal. This prompted Jesus’ critics (this time they are Pharisees) to charge him with being someone who associates with “tax collectors and sinners” (9:11).

Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Matthew scholar Warren Carter explains that Jesus’ healings and his table fellowship are “expressions of God’s mercy among the marginalized and constitutive of a new community.” (Matthew and the Margins, p. 219).

Uncomfortable with the more inclusive, egalitarian social order Jesus’ actions present, the Pharisees confront Jesus’ disciples. Overhearing it, Jesus responds, “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'” (Matthew 9:12-13; cf. Hosea 6:6).

I would say that few Christians have taken up this challenge from Jesus of learning to be people of mercy. One good place to start is Jon Sobrino’s The Principle of Mercy. Here is a quote that I think summarizes it well.

The ideal human being, the complete human being, is the one who interiorizes, absorbs in her innards, the suffering of another…in such a way that this interiorized suffering becomes a part of her, is transformed into an internal principle, the first and the last, of her activity. Mercy, as re-action, becomes the fundamental action of the total human being. Thus, this mercy is more than just one phenomenon in human reality among many. It directly defines the human being. To be sure, mercy does not suffice to define Jesus: He is a being of knowing, hoping, and celebrating, as well. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary that mercy come into his definition. For Jesus, to be a human being is to react with mercy. Without this reaction, the essence of the human is vitiated in its root, as occurred with the priest and the Levite who “saw him and went on.” . . .

Mercy, then, is the first thing and the last. It is more than a categorical practice of the “works of mercy.” True, the practice of mercy can and ought to include these works. But mercy itself is something far more radical. Mercy is a basic attitude toward the suffering of another, whereby one reacts to eradicate that suffering for the sole reason that it exists, and in the conviction that, in this reaction to the ought-not-be of another’s suffering, one’s own being, without any possibility of subterfuge, hangs in the balance.”

Responding to the scribes, Jesus made the claim that “the Human One” has the authority to forgive sins (Mt 9:5-6), causing a stir in the crowd who “glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings” (9:8).

To go and learn mercy is to go and learn to be fully human. Jesus’ healing actions were not only illustrations of the teaching he had done on the Sermon on the Mount, they were a revelation of what it looks like to be fully human. They transgressed traditional social boundaries, proving that human beings had a divine right to set alternative boundaries to the ones set by the Domination System. They were, in the end, illustrations of the power of the divine gift (in Jesus, and then to his followers) to interiorize oneself the suffering of another. May we become such a people of mercy, that we can interiorize in us the suffering of others in such a way that this interiorized suffering becomes a part of who we are and is transformed into an internal principle, the first and the last, of our activity.

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