I love and fully affirm the centrality of the biblical call to meet the full range of people’s needs, not just spiritual needs. When people are hungry, we need to feed them (Matthew 25:35). When they are mistreated, we need to stand up for them (Isaiah 1:17; Job 29:12-17). When they are sick, we need to visit them (Matthew 25:36). It is noteworthy that the false believers Christ rejects in Matthew 7:21-23 were apparently great at preaching (so-called), but neglected to meet people’s real, concrete needs as Christ instructs in Matthew 25:35-46.
We need to do better at this, and I think it is exciting to dream dreams of taking radical action for the good of others, and actually following through on those dreams. Further, we need to do this on a large scale, not just a small scale.
As we seek to correct our oversight as a church on the social action side of the last 90 years or so, it can be easy to emphasize the importance of social action in a way that downplays or minimizes the equal importance of evangelism. It is not uncommon to hear stories, for example, of short term missions teams going over to build houses for those in need, and yet never once mentioning the way of salvation through Christ. Further, we can feel that when we do make evangelism a chief aim, we almost need to apologize for it as though social action is what really “counts,” since it meets people’s concrete and directly felt needs.
This dichotomy is completely unnecessary. The reason is that the call to meet physical needs and the call to preach the gospel stem from the same motive and the same place in God’s heart.
Notice, for example, Matthew 9:13. Jesus chides the Pharisees here for not understanding the Scripture that “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees consistently put their strange and odd rules over the welfare of people, and this Scripture stands squarely against that. This Scripture teaches us that what God requires of us is not following made-up rules, or even rules that seem justified on the basis of “self-protection” or keeping ourselves from sin, but actually serving people and meeting their needs (cf. also the related instance in Matthew 12:1-8).
God’s statement that he desires mercy and not sacrifice is a great passage, in other words, on the importance of social action and meeting physical needs. This is especially clear from the tie with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan’s actions to meet the man’s physical needs are called “compassion” (Luke 10:33) and “mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus also often had compassion on the crowds, resulting in meeting their physical needs (Matthew 14:14; 9:35-36). To be a merciful person necessarily includes being on the lookout to meet physical needs.
But there is something even deeper in Matthew 9:13. When Jesus says “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” there, he gives it as the reason and foundation for why he is interacting with sinners. For he immediately adds: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
At the heart of what Jesus is saying is this: True compassion involves not just taking action to meet people’s needs, but doing this even for the unworthy. “I desire mercy” does not simply mean “do good to those who do good to you.” Jesus is defining true compassion as having love for sinful, unworthy people at its very essence. What the Pharisees didn’t get is that when God calls us to have compassion on people, he doesn’t restrict it to apparently “worthy” people. Love that does not love the unworthy is actually not true love at all. That’s why the call to love one’s enemies is central, not an aside, to the biblical ethic of love (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36; Romans 12:19-21). True compassion has compassion even on sinners, those who have failed, and even one’s enemies.
Which is, of course, all of us (something else the Pharisees didn’t get).
This is why Jesus came to earth. He came because he is a loving, compassionate God, which means not simply that he does good for those who do good, but that he also seeks to rescue those who have done evil. That’s the true meaning of love. That’s Jesus’ point here. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call not the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).
This is also the meaning of John 3:16. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That is, God’s love is the kind of love that gives utterly sacrificially even for the welfare of sinners–those who, as John puts it here, are in danger of perishing.
Seeking the welfare of unworthy — demonstrated in action — is part of the very definition of God’s love.
This is why social action is not enough. Love for others will and must manifest itself in meeting people’s concrete, tangible needs for food, shelter, companionship, and purpose in life. But beyond all of these things, we have a more fundamental, even deeper need: we are estranged from God because of our sin. True compassion does not stop at meeting people’s physical and social needs, therefore. It goes all the way and seeks to meet their spiritual need for reconciliation with God as well.
That’s how Jesus ultimately describes for us the meaning of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” He demonstrates the meaning of that verse ultimately in his own ministry, coming into the world not simply to meet physical needs but also proclaim the gospel and thereby rescue us from our ultimate misery. “For I came … to call … sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
The same love that compels us to meet people’s concrete, physical needs also compels us to truly care for the full range of their needs — including their spiritual need to receive the forgiveness of sins and come to know God.