Learning Mercy and Sacrifice: Homework from Jesus for Lutheran Higher Education

Learning Mercy and Sacrifice: Homework from Jesus for Lutheran Higher Education

Charles W. Blanco, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology,
Concordia University, Nebraska


“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” These words from Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (9:12, reiterated in 12:7) would seem to be right up the alley for consideration by any institution of Lutheran higher education. Jesus quotes from primary source material.[1] He addresses a question of meaning, a feature of higher order learning and analysis.[2] He issues an overt directive to learn. While Jesus’ words are spoken specifically to the Pharisees, we can also see them as programmatic of Jesus’ ministerial approach applicable to diverse audiences.

If we took Jesus at His word, if we went and learned what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” meant, what import would our learning have for Lutheran higher education?

The first part of the essay will be an exegetical exploration of the text itself (Matthew 9:9-13). The second part will focus on exploring some practical implications. As with much of Jesus’ teaching, there’s more here than meets the eye. Jesus was a wily and crafty teacher, not prone to giving homework for the sake of homework. Akin to the best instructors in our midst, Jesus has prepared a transformative project for His hearers to undertake, one designed to have them consider first principles. What follows is a modest proposal to assist with that consideration as it applies to some aspects of Lutheran higher education, including “zero tolerance” policies and other policy issues, matters of collegial interaction, matters of marketing and recruitment, and matters pertaining to academic and departmental philosophies.

Part I: Exegetical Exploration

The immediate setting for Jesus’ “go and learn” directive is the call of Levi/Matthew. Each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32) records this event and the subsequent gathering at Matthew’s home with other tax collectors and sinners, along with the Pharisees challenging Jesus’ disciples for how their teacher associates with notorious sinners.[3] Each account reports Jesus’ response, that His mission is to minister to those who are unwell, for it is they who need a physician, not the healthy, and thus Jesus has come not for the righteous but for sinners. Matthew alone, however, includes the directive, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” inserting it in the midst of the physician analogy and Jesus’ statement about the righteous and the sinners. It seems clear Matthew felt the “go and learn” content was a significant saying of Jesus (confirmed by the quote’s reappearance in 12:7), and thus it is worthy of our attention.

A possible approach toward understanding Matthew’s account is to see Jesus as simply rebuking the Pharisees, in effect saying, “You are nothing but legalists, blind to the fact that God’s true mission is that of a merciful physician. Bad Pharisees! By focusing on matters such as table fellowship regulations you self-reveal just how corrupt you are. The true sinners are not at table with me—they are you!”

In such an interpretation there are two clearly differentiated character sets, the healthy and the sick. Jesus’ words would then be understood to say that those obsessed with things such as sacrifices, ritual obedience, table fellowship, pointing out sins and violations of God’s law, etc., are not on Jesus’ team. In such a dichotomous interpretation, there is a “clean” gathering (Jesus’ table, of course, filled with tax collectors and sinners) and an “unclean” gathering (occupied by the Pharisees). In utilizing the quote, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus would be seen as casting His lot clearly against the Pharisees and their concern with the law and holiness, even as He casts His lot for mercy and compassion, welcoming all to His table and His presence.[4]

However, to approach the event in this fashion is to undercut Jesus’ expressed words in the text. If Jesus has come for the sick as a merciful physician, and if the Pharisees do self-reveal as having an illness of legalism within them, then it would be most strange to interpret Jesus’ actions as solely a rebuke. [5] Since the Pharisees are “sick” in not comprehending Jesus’ mission, it is far better to hear Jesus’ words, “Go and learn what this means …,” as truly compassionate, sending the Pharisees off to immerse themselves in God’s Word as a means of grace. Jesus seeks to correct their false understanding about God’s approach toward a sin-sick world. In this way, the Physician’s words can be understood as prescription not rejection. Jesus is aiming at the health of the Pharisees, not to disallow them as they sought to disallow the tax collectors and sinners from dining with the righteous.

What would the Pharisees find if they undertook Jesus’ homework assignment? Let’s investigate how the Old Testament uses “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We explore six passages:

  1. As noted earlier, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is taken from Hosea 6:4-6. Hosea very personally represented God’s grace and mercy to an undeserving and un-reciprocating people, Israel. As Hosea had loved and committed himself to Gomer, so God had loved and committed Himself to Israel, only to have such devotion find a return of unfaithfulness and adultery on the part of both Gomer and Israel. What was God to do with such an ungrateful and uncomprehending people (Hosea 6:4)? Like an adulterous spouse who may still wear a wedding band and may still engage in physical intimacy within the union even though the heart is elsewhere, Israel was still practicing sacrifices at the temple and observing the rituals God had commanded. However, those outward acts of ritual obedience were meaningless to God, demonstrating only that Israel was the walking dead.
    In response God sent prophets to cut Israel into pieces in the hope that His people would return in repentance and genuine fidelity.[6] It is in this setting that we encounter the words of Jesus’ homework assignment, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The sacrifices offered by idolatrous Israel at the altar of the holy God were as offensive to Yahweh as Gomer’s false assertions of love to Hosea. What God was seeking from Israel was a renewed and genuine relationship, a change that would alter what His people were offering at His altar.
    Hebrew terms utilized in Hosea 6:6 are emblematic of a true relationship with God, not one that imagines it is established and sustained merely on the basis of external rituals. What God desires from His people is mercy, steadfast love (in Hebrew, chesed). A full word study of the term is beyond our purposes here, but it is no exaggeration to claim that this word is primary in describing God’s commitment of love, faithfulness, and devotion to Israel, and therefore He was seeking a response similar from Israel (although, of course, never as pure and perfect as God’s). The Septuagint regularly translated the Hebrew chesed with the Greek term eleos, mercy, and that is the term employed in Matthew’s Gospel, “I desire mercy.”
    While mercy is an acceptable translation, the Hebrew term encompasses more than what is often connoted by mercy in English (such as pity, charity, leniency). Chesed describes God’s covenant love established with Israel.[7] Chesed is not mercy in the abstract; it is commitment, devotion, and fidelity in the concrete to a particular people. Because God was truly committed to Israel, He would not (indeed could not) simply abandon them. In interpreting Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew 9, we would do well to see it as another example of chesed. Jesus loved the tax collectors and sinners at His table, but He loved the Pharisees in exactly the same way: they were His people, but they were misconstruing the nature of their relationship with God, and so Jesus called out to them in covenantal love. Any “smiting” we read in Jesus’ words is there for the greater purpose of binding up the wound toward a full recovery.
  1. Similarly, “acknowledgement of God” is the stated objective in the second half of Hosea 6:6. As with mercy, “acknowledgement” entails far more than the mere cognitive recognition that God is sovereign. The Hebrew noun translated as “acknowledgement” is da‘ath, formed from the verb yada‘, a verb loaded with experiential and relational concepts.[8] Again, full word studies are beyond us, but it is safe to say that there is as much of the affective in the Hebrew word family as there is of the cognitive. The acknowledgment of God may well include recitation of creedal formulae, but it certainly involves a heartfelt intimate relationship with God.Sacrifices brought within such a relationship are prompted by genuine repentance and gratitude, and therefore they are welcomed and well received by God. But sacrifices that are offered apart from a relationship founded upon God’s mercy and steadfast love—sacrifices that are brought apart from an intimate knowledge of God in heart, soul, body, and mind—are worse than meaningless. They are an affront to God, for they presume that God is an easy mark, a rube, easily fooled by the artifice of disingenuous ritual. It was not that God did not want sacrifices or acts of ritual obedience, but He did not at all want those kinds of sacrifices: empty, dead, hollow, insubstantial like the morning mist (Hosea 6:4).
  1. A sentiment similar to “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is found in Micah 6:1–8 as part of the covenant lawsuit God brings against Israel. In Micah God presents evidence of His covenantal love, noting how He rescued and redeemed Israel from its Egyptian slavery, leading the people through the wilderness and protecting them from their enemies (Micah 6:3–5). Although God’s love was generously and sincerely expressed to Israel, they were under indictment for lifelessly carrying out the ritual acts of the temple ceremonies (6:6–7).
    What God desires from His people are not merely external acts of ritual obedience, but “to act justly and to love mercy [chesed/eleos] and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). As in Hosea, we see a clear priority in God’s desires for His people, that their presentation of sacrifices be a secondary feature, while the primary or foundational feature is a right relationship with Him (finding expression in their actions toward others). Where the display of these primary characteristics (justice, mercy, humility) is absent (replaced, for example, by greed, injustice, pride, apathy to the plight of others), then God regards sacrifices or other acts of ritual obedience as empty (even if Israel appeared with thousands of rams or rivers of oil as offerings, 6:7). Mercy (received from God and shared with others) precedes sacrifice and ritual obedience in the value hierarchy of God.
  1. Amos 5:18–24 presents a similar indictment but with even more strident language. To those in Israel who assumed that mistreatment of the poor and oppressed would be overlooked so long as outward acts of sacrifice and liturgical obedience were present, God responded, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies” (Amos 6:21). Instead, what the Lord sought from Israel was to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (6:24). Although the terminology of “mercy” is not employed here, God’s desires are the same, namely, that Israel was to reflect the same covenantal qualities toward others as He expressed in redeeming Israel from its Egyptian oppression. The hierarchy of values is the same as seen previously: First, a genuine and living relationship with Yahweh reflected in congruent behavior toward others, and second, the presentation of sacrifices and pious acts of ritual obedience. Without the former, the latter has no value.
  2. The same hierarchy of values is observed in Isaiah 1:2–18 as the prophet voices God’s complaint against His wayward people. While Israel had persisted in its temple duties, its life was disconnected from the Lord. God says He takes no pleasure in beholding such offerings; instead, they burden and weary Him, and so God hides His face from them, closing His ears to Israel’s prayers (1:11-15). What does God seek from Israel? A reformation of heart and life: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:18). As illustrated above, God desires from Israel that its own behavior mirror God’s covenantal love toward Israel. God was even now willing to welcome Israel back and mercifully make Israel’s scarlet sins as white as snow (1:18), but until Israel acknowledged that need of a reformation of heart to restore a true relationship with the Lord, the sacrifices and acts of ritual obedience would be offensive toward God.
  3. This same hierarchy of Yahweh’s values is explicit already at the onset of the kingship as detailed in 1 Samuel 15:17–23. The narrative in Samuel reports how King Saul revised the instructions he was given to destroy the plunder from Israel’s victory over the Amalekites. Instead, Saul kept some of the plunder to give an offering to God (an act one might say showed devotion toward God, see 15:20–21). Samuel responds that such sacrifices are not pleasing to God because they proceed from a heart that regards God’s instructions as negotiable and malleable. Thus Samuel said to Saul, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (15:22).
    Here we see two kinds of obedience. One kind is what Saul offered, thinking that God’s great desire was sacrifice (acts of ritual obedience). But what Samuel highlights is a different obedience, one that flows from a proper relationship with Yahweh that acknowledges Him as the sovereign Lord whose decrees are to be carried out. While Saul could argue that his adjustment of God’s directive resulted in a display of devotion, it was a devotion that elevated Saul’s plans above the Lord’s. Apart from an appropriate relationship of humble obedience to the Lord, Saul’s devotional acts of piety became evidence of Saul’s impiety.

Having surveyed these six passages, we can conclude that the Old Testament contains multiple instances where confusion occurred about God’s hierarchy of values. Time and again God’s people seemed to presume that as long as sacrifices and ritual acts of obedience were maintained, God would be happy. God responded time and time again that such a presumption revealed how far His people were from comprehending God’s true desires.

If we sought a one-word summary of God’s acts toward Israel and His desire for Israel to reflect His presence toward others, chesed (mercy, steadfast love, covenant fidelity, faithfulness) would serve well. As God had established His people with acts of mercy, so He sought that same quality to be evident in all of Israel’s activity. A humble Israel would always acknowledge its place as debtor to the Lord. A grateful Israel would always comprehend that a genuine appreciation of God’s mercy should permeate all of Israel’s behavior. In this circumstance, sacrifice and ritual obedience were welcomed by God, and they eventuated in the purposes for which they were offered (forgiveness of sins, offering thanks to God).

However, when that primary quality of chesed/mercy was replaced by anything else (be it humanity’s own definition of devotion, as with Saul, or a gross rejection of chesed for the “values” of greed and unjust behavior toward fellow Israelites), then whatever was served up to God as obedience (sacrifice or other ritual acts of piety) represented an inversion of God’s hierarchy. In that setting, God responds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

To modern ears that stark statement may appear to create a dichotomy that involves a full affirmation of “mercy” and a full rejection of “sacrifice.”  However, as could be seen in the above survey of Old Testament passages, we often find the relationship of “mercy” to “sacrifice” expressed not as an “either/or” but as “one more than the other,” that is, a comparative set of values, not a mutually exclusive set of values. Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture and allowing the context of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God to shape our understanding, we see that mercy and sacrifice have a complementary relationship within a particular hierarchy of values. In this complementarity, the primary value is held by mercy, with sacrifice and ritual obedience taking second place, still valued, but only where the primary value is truly primary in the relationship.

Why is a complementary hierarchy presented starkly in a way that could lead to misunderstanding (mercy = good; sacrifice = bad)? The answer is revealed when we recognize the literary convention of dialectical negation. In this figure of speech (a subset of hyperbole) two items are set in diametrical opposition to one another to exaggerate their differences, clearly preferring one over the other. While a surface reading of a dialectical negation may seem to indicate a complete rejection of one of the items, that conclusion must be subject to contextual clarification. The context of God’s covenant with Israel shows that it was God who established the sacrificial system for Israel to retain a right relationship with God. To imagine that Jesus was rejecting the role of sacrifice in the life of God’s people would be very odd indeed, for on His own lips He affirms that He has come to offer Himself as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is not, then, a statement of mutual exclusivity, but an ordered pair. God desires both mercy and sacrifice, but in their proper order, with the first term representing a right relationship with Him (founded on His mercy shown to His people and then reflected in that same mercy shown to others) which is then secondarily manifested in His people coming to Him with acts of ritual obedience, such as sacrifices, worship, thankofferings, etc.

In this light we can now assess Jesus’ homework assignment to the Pharisees and why He chose that assignment in particular. The Pharisees were regarded as the most religious and pious of the Jews, systematically ordering their lives in compliance with the law.[9] While that ordered life could have been a cause for rejoicing among the angels in heaven, it was instead too often revealed to be a cause for sorrow. Among at least some Pharisees (as portrayed in the Gospels), their acts of ritual obedience flowed not from a right relationship with God (characterized by mercy, humility, a desire to value what God values) but an inverted relationship with God which gave primacy of place to obedience (here seen as ritual obedience), relegating chesed/mercy to a place of insignificance (shown by their bafflement at how Jesus could welcome odious tax collectors and notorious sinners).

What made these Pharisees’ inversion of God’s value system particularly egregious was that they should have known better. They were trained in God’s instruction. They highly valued God’s acts for Israel. Of all people they should have known that chesed/mercy was primary with God, the sine qua non (“not without which”) of Israel’s relationship with God, and thus that quality should stand out above all in the life and behavior of any follower of the Lord. That these Pharisees had allowed any other element to have a priority over chesed revealed either a willful rejection of God’s ways or that they were wearing a set of blinders severely disrupting their reading of God’s Word.

In giving these Pharisees a homework assignment in God’s Word, the master teacher Jesus was acting as the great physician Jesus. These Pharisees were sick and in need of His care. They were blind to what was manifestly apparent in God’s instruction throughout the Torah and the Prophets (and the Writings: see Psalm 51:16–17). So the Physician who came to seek and to save the lost reached out not only to the obviously misled (tax collectors and notorious sinners) but also to those seriously misled in their view of God’s moral hierarchy. We might expand on Jesus’ brief statement in this way: “Go reassess what you think you know about God, and do so in light of this saying from the prophets of God, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  Once you comprehend how much covenant theology is embedded in those words, then you will see why I am at table with these people. Then you will see who I am, the Great Physician. Then you will come and join me at table. Then there will be rejoicing among God’s angels in heaven.”

Thus, Matthew 9 is not about “good guys” and “bad guys” such that we can self-identify with being on Jesus’ winning team and then sneer at those not with us. What we find in this narrative is the Physician at work engaging those in need of His care: tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees—and us. Jesus reaches out to them all, for that is who He is, God’s Son incarnate, bearing witness in His person to the hierarchy of God’s value system: mercy leading to a response of sacrifice and obedience (and not the other way around, or using the latter to the exclusion of the former—or the former to exclude the latter).

Part II: Practical Implications

If we went and learned what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” meant, what import would our learning have for Lutheran higher education? Several items of implication are explored below. We hope these paragraphs will prompt further conversation regarding areas of application in the reader’s particular community and setting.

First, the saint-sinners in Lutheran higher education need to undertake the homework assignment Jesus gave not simply once, but over and over again. If it was easy for the Pharisees to become blinded to the hierarchy of God’s value system, then it is just as easy for that same inversion to take place among us. Left to their own devices sinners will always prefer displays of their own piety over demonstrating God’s mercy to the sick. Focusing only on obedience to the law allows us to puff up our egos and point to how well we are doing, while at the same time pointing out how poorly the “other” is doing. When we find ourselves operating in this way, let the words of Jesus ring out in our ears, “Go and learn [re-learn] what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Such a truth may need to be learned [and re-learned] as faculty members compare curriculum vitae one to another. Such a truth may need to be learned [and re-learned] as we prepare promotional materials for prospective students. Do we send the message, “We are the good people and Jesus is on our side; but other institutions don’t rate”? If someone were to examine the headlines on our institutional websites, would it be clear that our hierarchy of values aligned with God’s? Perhaps they do, but then again, perhaps not. Thus, over and over again we need to heed our homework from Jesus, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  Comprehending these words as an ordered pair, our task is to order our ministry among colleagues, students, and community by God’s chesed, followed by our necessary but always secondary professional acts of obedience. This is an on-going task, not a “one and done.” It’s a shaping and reshaping of the heart, mind, soul, and body by God’s chesed, and then reflecting that as fully as we can.

Second, since all Lutheran higher education takes place within institutional settings, it is to be recognized that all institutions need policy handbooks to shape our lives and direct our efforts. All institutions need vision and mission statements lest we flail about toward no effective purpose. How would, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” serve to inform the production and application of such documents of mission and policy? Does the mission and vision statement of our individual institution trump the mission statement of Jesus and His emphasis of the rightly ordered pair of mercy and sacrifice? Are policies seen as dictates to be enforced to someone’s advantage and another’s detriment such that chesed is difficult to identify? What role should chesed have in how a faculty member treats a member of the administration or vice versa? Are a professor’s policies expected to be followed in the classroom regardless of the circumstances that confront a student, indicating that obedience to the syllabus is the highest priority of the course of instruction?

It is not that we would negate the value of policies or mission statements, for as indicated above, the “either/or” reading of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” does not do justice to God’s desire made clear in Christ’s mission. However, we do want to be careful that our own policy handbooks don’t become the highest value among us. It is extremely doubtful that anyone in Lutheran higher education would ever formally say, “Adherence to our developed policies is the highest value promoted on campus.” But it would probably also be the case that no Pharisee would ever have said, “Ritual obedience is of higher value than God’s chesed.” Our outer affirmations are one thing. Jesus’ “Go and learn” assignment teaches that what we do often reveals our value hierarchy better than what we say.

One element to consider here is the appropriateness in Lutheran higher education of “zero tolerance policies.” Putting the best construction on such an approach, they declare that certain behaviors are so incongruent with and destructive of Christian ministry and service that they are to be ear-marked as not-to-be-tolerated in any way. With this marking, community members are given fair warning not to engage in them. The question is, does a zero tolerance approach inherently value “sacrifice” (obedience to policy as an act of ritual devotion to the institution) over “mercy”? The Pharisees had adopted a zero tolerance approach toward table fellowship with notorious sinners, Gentiles, and the ritually unclean. Jesus identified that approach as contrary to God’s covenantal mission. Do our zero tolerance policies send the message that there is no room for chesed/mercy in our midst?

This is a complex discussion to undertake, for there are indeed behaviors wholly incongruent with Christian ministry. A professor taking sexual license with a student so grossly impairs the achievement of Christian educational purposes that it cannot be allowed to continue. It is not being argued here that “mercy” should be seen as “tolerance” in the sense of license. When God brought His covenant lawsuit against Israel, it could in no way be seen as tolerating Israel’s sinfulness. The opposite was the case: in calling Israel to judgment for sin, God was acting in chesed/fidelity to His covenant relationship with Israel, working to call them back in repentance and renewal of the genuine relationship of love and trust He desired above all else. So tolerance of bad behavior or poor performance is not to be identified with chesed/mercy.

However, when we designate some behaviors or performances as zero tolerance, are we sending the signal that there is no room for chesed/mercy in those areas? By adopting “zero tolerance” policies, have we inadvertently trumped “mercy” with “sacrifice/obedience” as our primary ethic? If, however, Jesus has taught us through our homework that chesed/mercy is primary, then should we adjust these policies with something that more appropriately reveals a hierarchy of values in alignment with Jesus’ approach toward sinners?

The same concern about elevating policy over a genuine practice of chesed/mercy could be explored with hiring and termination procedures, with disciplinary procedures, with advancement in rank procedures, with student disciplinary procedures, etc. There is no “one size fits all” approach to these matters that would mark them as distinctively “Lutheran Christian,” but it would be good to ask if a reading of our policy handbook would make it evident to the reader that we have indeed learned again and again that our Lord desires mercy, not sacrifice.

Third, in adopting a particular philosophy about education or our own academic discipline or a worldview in general, have we allowed that philosophy to overwhelm the truth that in His chesed/mercy God has adopted us in Christ in spite of our sinful record and that He has called us to proclaim the good news of Jesus as the Great Physician? It is not that every idea or philosophy in the world is contrary to Christian teaching. Rather, the question goes to the hierarchy of our allegiances. After researching, writing, and defending a thesis, after investing so much of our time and effort into a particular theory and idea, it is easy to regard that theory as the defining feature of our approach to life. Then, when we look at others who dare to challenge what we have invested so much in, we can easily view them in the same way the Pharisees viewed the tax collectors and sinners dining with Jesus. Everyone has a value system. In Lutheran higher education are we willing to receive Jesus’ instruction, “Go and learn…,” as part of our assessment of our preferred philosophy in the world of academia?

Fourth, in the current academic atmosphere where achieving/maintaining accreditation is such a high priority, there is a concomitant desire to attach a metric to every element in the educational endeavor so that we can measure it, assess it, and tell our story that we are meeting our goals, adjusting our practice to achieve our goals, or re-setting our goals to improve our work among students. It is not going to be argued here that using metrics is an inherently bad thing; that would be foolish.

However, as we consider the ordered pair of chesed/mercy and sacrifice/ritual obedience, it would seem clear that of the two, acts of obedience lend themselves to measurement much more easily than displays of chesed/mercy. An act of sacrifice is observable and measurable; an act of chesed/mercy often is not, and by our Lord’s instruction it is not to be counted even if it could be (“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” Matthew 6:1-4). As such, in our time of “metric mania,” it would be easy to comprehend how a focus might inadvertently be placed on “sacrifice/ritual obedience” (because it can be measured) and how chesed/mercy might easily be overlooked in institutional values, visions, and goals.

Is it worth a discussion in the halls of Lutheran higher education whether there is a need for some “push back” against the measurement approach to all aspects of our educational work? Seeking to assign a metric to every endeavor can easily fall into the trap of elevating the measuring of our sacrifices and acts of ritual obedience to the point that they effectively overtake our commitment to chesed/mercy as our highest value. Lutheran higher education has a strong position from Jesus and Scripture to make the case that metrics have a place, but not in every place. Certainly, this is a complex discussion to undertake in our engagements with accrediting agencies.


Most readers probably have enough experience with institutions, boards, and committees to understand that such entities easily default to what other institutions, boards, and committees have done in addressing the matters at hand. Since institutions, boards, and committees have work to accomplish, there is a certain common sense to adhering to established “best practices” or adopting previously adjudicated “boilerplate” for inclusion in policy and procedure handbooks. While common sense and precedent can be useful tools, they can also devolve into an elevation of protected rituals as sacrosanct, as matters beyond discussion. The temptation to truncate discussions about ethical value systems is a strong one when we have deadlines to meet and documents to produce for accrediting agencies. Jesus is not about truncating such matters, but about expanding our formation in these areas to be in conformation with Him. To those who would listen, Jesus assigns homework, driving us again to engage God in first principle conversation, in this case, revealing an “ordered pair” approach in discerning what is good, right, and appropriate.

When God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and when Jesus affirms this desire within the context of His ministry as a physician seeking to heal all who are afflicted by the plague of sin and death, then we can observe a presumption that there is something needing healing among us by God’s chesed/mercy in Christ Jesus. Applying this truth to Lutheran higher education, we might note that finding dysfunction in any and all of our systems, approaches, and institutions should not be surprising, for they are all populated by sinners. In this light, the “failure is not an option” approach is about as helpful as saying “sickness is not an option.” Sickness is the symptom of a deeper malady that the Physician has come to address through His teaching, His acts of mercy, His death, and His resurrection. As we create and recreate our systems, policies, and practices, there are many, many valuable items of wisdom to draw upon for guidance and inspiration. Homework from the Savior ought not be lost in the shuffle. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

[1] “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” is a quotation from Hosea 6:6. Very similar content is abundantly represented in the Old Testament, as we shall explore later in the essay.
[2] The Greek text does not have a separate word here to express “meaning,” but there is no doubt from the context that what the Greek represents (τί ἐστιν: “what it is”) certainly pertains to the meaning and significance of the quotation.
[3] While there are some distinctives to each Gospel account, they all report the event in essentially the same fashion.
[4] If one were so inclined, one could say that Jesus casts His lot with the Prophets against the Law/Torah (we are not so inclined, as the essay will reveal).
[5] How easy is it for modern readers, who of course self-identify as ones standing with Jesus, to experience a bit of Schadenfreude as they watch Jesus take those self-righteous legalists down a peg or two (“Way to go, Jesus! You sure showed them!”)? And how easy is it for such readers to grant themselves permission to go find some legalists in their midst that can be treated as enemies, whom the “righteous” of Jesus’ team can reject as sinners? It is suggested here that any reading of this text that sends the “good guys” out to behave like the Pharisees is a serious misreading of the text and Jesus’ mission.
[6] Hosea 6:5. As Lutheran theology would view this, God’s smiting of Israel was part of opus alienum (alien work, something He did not seek to do but was forced to do to reclaim a wayward people). Similarly, God’s work to bind up the wound as a physician was His opus proprium (His proper work, the work that He aspired to conduct with His people above all). See Hosea 6:1.
[7] For example, see Ex. 34:6-7 for two instances of the Hebrew term (italicized in the following translation) that are foundational for understanding how Yahweh reveals Himself and engages with the people of His redemption: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands’” (ESV).
[8] As is commonly known, this is the Hebrew verb regularly employed to indicate sexual intercourse in the Old Testament. To “know” a person in this usage is clearly much more than solely cognition.
[9] While there is much that is not known about the origin of the various subgroups within Judaism at the dawn of the New Testament era, much scholarly work over the last several decades has been done that has served to reshape prior characterizations of the Pharisees (among others) as strict legalists or as those who approached their relationship with God solely in terms of human merit or achievement. There are legitimate questions about whether the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospel is representative of all Pharisees or only a certain subset beset with self-righteous tendencies. (Some critics would suggest that the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels has been skewed for propaganda purposes by the Christian authors; that is not a view accepted in this paper.) The literature in the field is vast. Much of the work has been done in concert with what has come to be known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” An accessible volume in this field that helps to present the scholarly discussion about Jewish understandings of grace, mercy, and the law is Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

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