Mercy over Sacrifice: The Missing Principle in Muscle and a Shovel

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When I finished reading Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

The arguments, proof texts, and methods were familiar, even the attitude was somewhat familiar. I had heard it before, and I had even used very similar, if not the same, arguments myself some thirty years ago.

Over those thirty years I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in which we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic, and this obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in the Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify a community dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church.

This perspective is important because it shapes how we read Scripture. In particular, it shapes how we read “commands” in Scripture. Are “commands” fundamentally legal tests of loyalty or are they modes of transformation? When we read biblical “commands” as legal tests of loyalty, then we reduce obedience in God’s redemptive story to “crossing lines in the sand.” Obedience viewed in this way becomes a mechanical technicality by which we comply with the command’s legalities. Obedience becomes a “check list” of requirements. But when we read “commands” as modes of transformation, obedience is how God transforms character by the mediation of divine presence. Obedience, then, becomes identification with God’s values and community. In this understanding, obedience has relational meaning. It is about shared life with God. The former approach understands “command” as a legal technicality, but the latter understands it as a mode of relational transformation.

Baptism, for example, should be understood as a mode of relational transformation. It is a means by which God encounters us, shapes us, transforms us, and engages us in the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We should not turn it into a legal technicality. When baptism becomes an absolute and technical “line in the sand,” then we have transformed it into something God never intended. We reduce God’s transforming work to a legal detail as if the whole of God’s work in a person’s life stands or falls on this one command. Indeed, when baptism becomes a legal watershed that divides the world between those who can “go to heaven” and those who cannot, we exalt baptism over transformation. When we exalt the means over the end we turn baptism into a legal technicality rather than a mode of divine transformation.

This way of reading Scripture misconstrues the heart of God. It pictures God as the judge of legal technicalities rather than the parental mentor who transforms us through loving guidance. God is not the God of technicalities, but the Father who lovingly pursues us and is gracious with our mistakes as we, trusting in Christ, seek God’s will.

Jesus thought people should understand this theological trajectory from their reading of Scripture. God desires mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). If the Pharisees, who condemned Sabbath-breaking by Jesus’s disciples, had understood the meaning of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” then they would not have “condemned the innocent”(Matthew 12:1-7).

The importance of Sabbath in Israel can hardly be questioned. It was a ritual (a liturgically prescribed form), but it was no empty ceremony. God gave it meaning, and God used it as a tool of spiritual formation within Israel. “Ritual” is neither a bad word nor a negative thing. It is part of human life, family traditions, and religious community. Sacrifice, Sabbath, circumcision, and festivals were part of Israel’s walk with God, and similar rituals are still part of our walk with God (e.g., assembling on the first day of the week, baptism, the Lord’s table). They are important and formative practices, and they are divinely ordained.

Sabbath was so important that the Law prescribed severe penalties for those who violated it (Exodus 31:15). Consequently, Sabbath-keeping was serious business in Israel. As ritual, it mediated God’s own Sabbath. Israel rested with God on that day. To violate the Sabbath was to reject God’s gracious gift of his own rest.

Unfortunately, some in Jesus’ day viewed the Sabbath through legal lenses rather than relational ones. They regarded the Sabbath as a technical legality rather than a relational enjoyment of God’s presence. While they may have valued the relational dimension, when they exalted the technicality, they denied the relationality. In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees subjected Jesus and his disciples to this technical critique, and Jesus rebuked them. Indeed, he sought to re-orient their reading of the Sabbath institution. He pointed to the relational function of the Sabbath rather than its legal technicality.

Jesus’s fundamental justification is found in Matthew 12:7. Quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,” Jesus appeals to a theological principle that underlies his two examples—David and temple sacrifices. Hosea 6:6 is not a third argument but an appeal to the underlying principle by which to judge what is lawful and unlawful on the Sabbath. As a hermeneutical—an interpretative principle—it governs the use and misuse of rituals and formal patterns. If Pharisees had understood the intent of the Law, they would have never attacked the disciples. If they had understood that God desires “mercy, and not sacrifice,” they never would have accused the disciples of doing anything unlawful.

Jesus had previously quoted Hosea 6:6 in Matthew’s Gospel (9:13). There Jesus justified eating with Matthew and his unclean (immoral) friends by an appealing to Hosea 6:6. It functions as a hermeneutical principle for Jesus. The word “mercy” also occurs in Matthew 23:23 when Jesus identifies it as one of the “weightier matters” of the Law. “Mercy” is more important than Pharisaic strictures on tithing. Indeed, it is more important than rituals. “Mercy” is more important than Sabbath. He concludes that it is lawful “to do good” on the Sabbath as a function of mercy (Matthew 12:12). “To do good” in Jewish literature is an act of benevolence or mercy (cf. Galatians 6:10; James 4:17). One may violate the Sabbath in order to show mercy. Mercy is the heart of the Law.

Sacrifice and Sabbath were essential and necessary rituals in the faith of Israel. They were neither unimportant nor optional. But both are subordinate to the principle of mercy. The rituals serve the goal of transformation. They serve mercy rather than vice versa.

Ritual is not the most important thing. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath (cf. Mark 2:23-3:6). Ritual is made for humanity, not humanity for ritual. Rituals serve the ends for which God has designed them, but they must never be used to oppress and repress the heart that seeks God. When we use ritual to deny mercy, then we put ourselves in the position of the Pharisees.

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy. It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation), and thus condemns the guiltless (to use the words of Jesus).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!


You can get Dr. Hicks’ 64 page review of Muscle and a Shovel in PDF here.

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