February 26, 2012

Mercy and Sacrifice/Our Boundaries Within/The Pain of Love

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:10-13, English Standard Version

I've been reading Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality,  by Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University, and he uses verse 13 as a theme throughout the book to demonstrate the conscious (and more often, subconscious) boundaries we have in our minds, and what we do with them. As Beck is an experimental psychologist, and not a theologian, this book addresses issues in the Church from a standpoint of attitudes and actions in missionality, and not as doctrine or dogma.

Using verse 13 of Matthew 9, Beck makes the case that the deeper psychological meaning of "sacrifice" here is not so much about offering sacrifice at the temple as it is about how the Pharisees, and we as Church members today, can sacrifice people to be excluded from the Church due to their status as "sinners" or "unclean." Without an in-depth recap of Beck's argument, I think we can extend his ideas from the Church level to the level of our personal attitudes and relationships.

We all have boundary psychology; we swallow our saliva all day long, yet when we spit it out, it becomes something dirty and offensive. It is outside the boundary of our body. We tend to extend these boundaries to our social and moral lives as well. All through history there are countless examples of these boundaries at levels from the schoolyard to nations. "Cool/Uncool", "Our team/Their team", "Republican/Democrat", we have these distinctions that keep us separated for those that are unlike us. These boundaries can become so exclusive that they cause problems, and can become dangerous, like "Black/White" "American/Communist" and "Aryan/Jew."

The Pharisees had their boundaries of "Clean/Unclean" and "Righteous/Sinner", carefully keeping themselves separated from that which was not considered clean or righteous. We have this in the Church today as "Saved/Sinner", and we can see different levels of this boundary of exclusion in various churches today. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”, takes on a deeper meaning when we look at it from this vantage point.

Christ extended the boundary of the of the church of His day, showing the Pharisees that it was more important to show mercy to those considered "unclean" rather than to sacrifice them to being kept away from God.  In doing this, He showed us that it isn't the outsider that will contaminate us and take us farther from God, but quite the opposite: that by coming into the Church, the sinner draws near to, and partakes of His cleansing.

That's a lot of food for thought concerning our attitudes in a group, but what does that have to do with personal relationships? Christ showed His love and mercy for us by giving His life for us on the cross. He was concerned with our well-being more than His own. At its deepest, most intimate level, love cares more about the well-being of the other person, rather than our self. Think I'm wrong about that? Show me a loving parent that wouldn't exchange their life and safety for that of their child, or a loving spouse that doesn't beg God to exchange their own life for that of their terminally ill or injured love. That's the agapao of the New Testament Greek.

When it comes to our close personal relationships, it's very easy to lose sight of this, especially when clouded by mixed emotions of pain, fear, and love. We can become distant and withdrawn, or desperately try to cling to the other in order to avoid the pain of loss. In either case, we are displaying sacrifice of the other, rather than mercy. It is what Beck terms a failure of love, not in love itself, but in our ability to understand and practice it.

None of this should be construed to say that I would advocate someone endangering their own or another's physical safety, but for the injuries to our emotions and heart, as Christians, we already have access to the most powerful medicine there is. His love and mercy for us.

"I came not to call the righteous, but sinners"

"Come to me, all those who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest."

"To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

"The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price."

His love invites us closer.

His love does not set boundaries, it removes them.

His love does not fear hurt or contamination.

His love cleanses and sanctifies.

His love is to save us, rather than Himself.

His love was given to us with all of His heart, understanding, and strength.

More than anything else, I want to learn to love Him as He loves me. Doing that means that I have to learn to love you as He loves you. That means I have to take down the boundaries of my heart, reach out to touch you, and let you touch me.

In doing that, we risk pain. Whether it is the pain of getting hurt in a relationship, or the pain of grief at seeing another's suffering, the deep practice and meaning of love will have pain with it.

But He has love and mercy to heal us all.

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