Mercy not Sacrifice (part 1)

Uncleaned Sidewalk. Photo by Venture Vancouver. Creative Commons License

One of the most important and influential books I have read in the last decade is Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

Along with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Beck’s book pulls back the curtain on some fundamental reasons why we think and act as we do. Beck focuses on religious communities and the impulses that motivate them with regard to protecting the purity of the group and/or welcoming the “other” (the “unclean” stranger) into their midst, whereas Haidt concentrates on our political tribes and the impulses that drive them.

The key scripture text to which Beck refers is the following story about Jesus from Matthew 9:10-13.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘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.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ [emphasis mine]

Mercy is the impulse to welcome: to cross boundaries, to set aside our natural “disgust” for that which is outside our bounds of “acceptable” and to invite the other to participate in relationship with us. In this case, Jesus showed mercy to “tax collectors and sinners,” welcoming them and eating with them, whereas the Pharisees did not. They did not understand how Jesus could violate the boundary between what they saw as “clean” and “unclean.” They lacked the bold imagination to see that mercy itself can be transformative.

Sacrifice, on the other hand, is the impulse to purify by excluding that which is “unclean” or by somehow “cleansing” it through a purification process. The Pharisees could not accept the “sinners” because their behavior violated the standards of the Pharisaic community (which they saw as God’s standards). They would not be accepted into Pharisaic circles unless and until they got their act together. Until then, no contact was allowed for fear that the Pharisees themselves would become “contaminated” and find themselves unclean. Jesus, however, had no such scruples. He had the imagination to believe that welcoming sinners might have the opposite effect — the unclean would become clean! This is the very point of incarnation, a point the Pharisees and multitudes of other religious communities have missed.

I want to work through Beck’s book again and, along the way, to share some of its powerful insights with you. Today, here is an overview of what “disgust” is — that impulse we all have to separate ourselves from the unclean and to expel it from our midst.

First, disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors the borders of the body, particularly the openings of the body, with the aim of preventing something dangerous from entering. This is why, as seen in Matthew 9, disgust (the psychology beneath notions of purity and defilement) often regulates how we think about social borders and barriers. Disgust is ideally suited, from a psychological stance, to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries. Similar to core disgust, social disgust is triggered when the “unclean,” sociologically speaking, crosses a boundary and comes into contact with a group identified as “clean.” Further, as we will see in Part 2 of this book, the boundary-monitoring function of disgust is also ideally suited to guard the border between the holy and the profane. Following the grooves of core disgust, we experience feelings of revulsion and degradation when the profane crosses a boundary and comes into contact with the holy.

Beyond functioning as a boundary psychology we have also noted that disgust is an expulsive psychology. Not only does disgust create and monitor boundaries, disgust also motivates physical and behavioral responses aimed at pushing away, avoiding, or forcefully expelling an offensive object. We avoid the object. Shove the object away. Spit it out. Vomit.

This expulsive aspect of disgust is also worrisome. Whenever disgust regulates our experience of holiness or purity we will find this expulsive element. The clearest biblical example of this is the scapegoating ritual in the Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16), where a goat carrying the sins of the tribe is expelled into the desert. The scapegoat is, to use the language of disgust, spit or vomited out, forcefully expelling the sins of the people. In this, the Day of Atonement, as a purification ritual, precisely follows the logic of disgust. The scapegoating ritual “makes sense” as it is built atop an innate and shared psychology. The expulsive aspect of the ritual would be nonsensical, to either ancient or modern cultures, if disgust were not regulating how we reason about purity and “cleansing.”

The worry, obviously, comes when people are the objects of expulsion, when social groups (religious or political) seek “purity” by purging themselves through social scapegoating. This dynamic—purity via expulsion—goes to the heart of the problem in Matthew 9. The Pharisees attain their purity through an expulsive mechanism: expelling “tax collectors and sinners” from the life of Israel. Jesus rejects this form of “holiness.” Jesus, citing mercy as his rule, refuses to “sacrifice” these people to become clean.

• Richard Beck. Unclean (pp. 15-16)

12 thoughts on “Mercy not Sacrifice (part 1)

  1. First, disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors the borders of the body, particularly the openings of the body, with the aim of preventing something dangerous from entering. This is why, as seen in Matthew 9, disgust (the psychology beneath notions of purity and defilement) often regulates how we think about social borders and barriers.

    A couple years ago, wasn’t there some Big Name Christian Leader throwing in on the same-sex marriage fight whose anti-Homosexual preaching was entirely based on Disgust?


  2. Agree with Christine.

    If you can’t embrace the poor wounded monster inside, you will never lack for them outside.

    Father, now Saint, Paisios of the Holy Mountain summed it up very well: “Don’t be so angry at the ‘sinners’. Who carries out your trash? A drunkard. Who sells your family fruit and wheat? An adulterer. Who repairs the roads so that you can take the bus to the city and visit your grandparents? An Albanian, and working along side of him a hater of Albanians. Apart from them, what life do we have? What can we count as our own?”


  3. In the Hosea passage Jesus is quoting, in the Hebrew “mercy” is actually “hesed”, which means “faithfulness”, “loyalty” or “fulfilling one’s obligations”, and Hosea goes on to say “and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”. In the Greek translations of the Hebrew “hesed” was translated as “eleos”, strictly “pity” or “compassion” – the desire or readiness to help those afflicted or in need. It applied to God’s faithfulness and support to Israel as much as people exercising compassion on each other. It’s at first sight an odd verse for Jesus to throw at the Pharisees, who were all about personal piety rather than Temple sacrifices, and an odd one to refer to in response to criticism of eating with sinners.
    I get the above concept of “mercy” as reaching out to the rejected and “other”, but I don’t really follow how “sacrifice” is about the impulse to purify by rejecting the unclean. The “scapegoat” is not the one sacrificed – it’s the other goat that is sacrificed, and in terms of cleansing things the blood of sacrifices was used exactly to render unclean things clean, to render them fit to approach God, which is quite the opposite of the exclusion sacrifice is said to be about.
    A sacrifice is a gift to God designed to, basically, bribe the deity with things of value to look with favour on the sacrifice. I don’t see where disgust or boundaries come into it. Hosea’s and other prophets problems with sacrifices are if they are like the bunch of flowers that a cheating husband comes back with to his wife after visiting his mistress: the gift which might otherwise be a nice gesture of affection in the circumstances is an insult on top of injury.
    It is “Pharisee” which literally means “separated”. The Pharisees saw themselves as a breed apart from ordinary Jews, let alone sinners and collaborating tribute collectors. I don’t think this is about expelling others but more about separating out oneself. The Pharisees were concerned to preserve their own moral purity and separateness through careful piety as a sacrifice to earn the good favour of God, rather than helping others to come back to Him, which was the problem Jesus was addressing. The Pharisees, we are told, were active in missionary work, but from what Jesys is saying here their work was to recruit the righteous to join their ranks, rather than retrieve lost sinners back in to the community.


  4. Robert, I expect that by the time Francis had reached his conversion, he was no longer focused on ‘self’ and instead began to feel a deep kinship with the whole of humanity including the outcasts, the ones whom everyone else had rejected,
    and this sense of being a part of the whole human community turned him towards wanting to reach out and serve in response to the words of Christ in the Holy Gospels, this:

    ” ‘I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me’.

    It seems he had laid ‘self’ aside by that time, Robert, and saw himself as ‘one of’ the ones he felt he had been led to care for . . . .

    some have been able to reach that level of humility, like Damien of Molokai, a priest who volunteered to spend the rest of his life on a leper colony in Hawaii on the island of Molokai. . . . and one day, Damien was able to start his sermon with the words ‘Fellow lepers . . . ‘

    It seems the opposite of the need to be exclusive and to point the finger at ‘those others, doesn’t it, when a person realized that all are in need of God’s mercy, including themselves, and that they are not ‘alone’ but are dwelling ‘in community’ as a servant of Christ.


  5. Thanks for this, CM. The difference between “mercy” and “sacrifice” was very helpful to me.

    Becks’ take on “disgust” reminds me of the “T” part of TULIP — Total Depravity — and why I bristle at that idea. Does God find us as “disgusting” as some religious folks seem to believe we are? Unclean, yes, but even Jesus reaches out and touches the unclean as if there is no “disgust” involved.


  6. In his Testament, St. Francis wrote,

    “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure;
    but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them.
    When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”


  7. Mercy is a sacrifice, because it is so hard to give up one’s habitual,reflexive disgust — whatever particular shape and form it takes for one personally — in accepting some people, or going out to them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: