Mercy vs. “The Law” — Incompatible? Maybe not

Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 23:23-24 — “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Not too crazy. The Pharisees are missing the point again — same old stuff. But read that list of the “more important matters of the law” again: Justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Hold on. Mercy? When I heard that read in church on Sunday, my first thought was this: “That’s not right.” I thought the relationship between mercy and “The Law” was akin to the relationship between oil and water. As in, they don’t mix. They are incompatible, irreconcilable. Mercy is abstaining from treating someone according to what they deserve, and what they deserve is dictated by the law, right?
Ok, now read this. Deuteronomy 15, vs. 7-10: “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to (NIV).”

This is part of The Law that God instituted for His people. I had never noticed this before, but all throughout the Pentateuch and the entire Old Testament, many of God’s commands to His people don’t have as much to do with adhering to a list of clear-cut behaviors, but instead more to do with showing mercy and going above and beyond what is clear-cut and “reasonable” in terms of how you should treat your fellow people, especially the downtrodden. Try doing a keyword search for the word “poor” and you’ll find multiple references in Deuteronomy alone that all have to do with providing for the poor and needy. God expects generosity and hospitality from His people — and He requires it from them (us) in His word.

How can this be a “Law”? It’s extremely subjective and vague. How can I be legalistic when The Law doesn’t tell me exactly what to do, and instead simply tells me to, in essence, live a generous and hospitable life? How can I be sure I fulfilled my end of the deal when my end of the deal isn’t clear-cut?

(Think God did this on purpose?) Maybe The Law was not simply a list of rules to follow like we so often say. Maybe it was in fact a giant object lesson in what God actually cares about. We’re so slow to realize this, but what seems to matter to God is not the actions taken, but the attitudes that prompted them — the subjective, not the objective. God isn’t necessarily writing incident reports and keeping logs. Maybe He’s looking at our hearts.


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