Sometimes in the church we distinguish between gospel ministry and “ministries of mercy.” The distinction is understandable. Some Christian service mercifully focuses on physical needs, providing food, shelter, medicine, job training, and disaster relief. However, those efforts don’t necessarily address the more fundamental needs of the soul. This is why many churches stress evangelism and discipleship. When you give someone the gospel, you’re addressing a poverty greater than physical hunger. You’re providing access to healing and a home that will last forever.

But describing our ministries in this way is potentially unhelpful. It may create an unnatural divide, leading to the opinion that one ministry is necessary while the other is optional. Further, the labels can be problematic. Mercy is multifaceted and shouldn’t be limited to acts of charity. Even the most fundamental of all gospel work—that of evangelism—is a ministry of mercy.

Even the most fundamental of all gospel work—that of evangelism—is a ministry of mercy.

Mercy and Scandal

In Luke 5:27 we read the story of Jesus calling Levi (also known as Matthew), a tax collector. While we’re not told what kind of custom he was collecting, we know that people like Matthew were notorious for being crooks (Luke 19:1–10).

They were often able, if not encouraged, to charge beyond the required tolls and thus line their pockets. Not only that, but the nature of their work meant they were sellouts. Their role as tax collectors reinforced Roman dominance in the region while fleecing fellow citizens.

Matthew wasn’t like some IRS agent working in a cubicle in Washington. His offense was far more personal and reprehensible. To be a Jewish tax collector working for Caesar was to be filthy rich. It was to be among the worst sinners imaginable. You were immoral, a leech on society, and a traitor to your nation.

Yet Jesus deliberately chose this no-good tax collector and summoned him to follow. And Levi did. He walked away from a lucrative position and personal security. Luke says he left everything (Luke 5:28)—though he didn’t leave his friends. In the verses that follow, we find Levi hosting a great feast for his dubious acquaintances, a house full of sinners and tax collectors eating with Jesus (Luke 5:29). This was scandalous to the Pharisees.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus said in response to the Pharisees’ complaints (Luke 5:31). He hadn’t joined the party simply as a guest, but as the Great Physician. The work of a doctor is among the hurting. The work of our Savior is among sinners who need to repent (Luke 5:32).

His words were also dripping with irony. The Pharisees considered themselves well, among those who didn’t need help. Such an attitude reveals just how badly they needed a heart transplant. In Matthew’s account of the event, we read of Jesus’s command to them: “Go and learn” (Matt. 9:13). Learn the lesson of Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Imagine a man arriving home from work on a Friday night, giving flowers to his wife, pledging his devotion, and offering to take her to the finest restaurant for dinner. But if he’d spent the whole week grumbling around the house, yelling at the kids, and consistently being a jerk, how might his wife respond?

In Hosea’s day, God’s people were willing to complete the external requirements of their religion (performing sacrifices, bringing offerings), yet they missed what mattered most: steadfast love (Hos. 4:1). They’d dutifully come to the temple to worship, but throughout the week they’d treat their neighbor with contempt, lying and stealing, killing and committing adultery (Hos. 4:2).

They said they loved God, but they didn’t love their neighbor—thus proving themselves to be liars (1 John 4:20). God responded through his prophet: I desire love (translated “mercy” in the Septuagint), not sacrifice. In effect: “Until you show love to your neighbor, don’t come to me with your worship.”

Of course, God wasn’t trying to abolish temple worship or the sacrificial system in Hosea’s day. But his warning shows how woefully lacking their love was. Jesus said much the same:

[E]veryone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:22–24)

Some of us might read those words and ask ourselves, Who was he talking about? I know we shouldn’t insult our brothers, but who is my brother? Then again, maybe we should ask, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

If we as Christians maintain categories of people who deserve our righteous ridicule; if we belittle our political opponents; if we slander all the “stupid” people on social media; if we mock our rivals; if we deride others as “sellouts” and “traitors”; if we vilify them to preserve our nation or to protect God’s people from corruption; if we’re willing to exclude others from the love of God in order to secure our societal power and religious influence, then we’re acting more like Pharisees and less like Jesus.

Had Jesus simply said, “You know what those sinners need? They need to repent,” surely the Pharisees would’ve agreed. They wanted tax collectors put in their place. But what the Pharisees couldn’t stand was the sight of Jesus showing them mercy. Like Jonah, they weren’t necessarily afraid to sacrifice for God. They just didn’t want to show love to sinners.

Merciful Evangelism

Christians might think we’d never succumb to the sin of Jonah or become like the Pharisees who piously despise others (Luke 18:9–14). But I’m convinced we’re often tempted to sacrifice for God without being willing to give to sinners. We’re tempted to do a version of evangelism but not show mercy for our opponents. We’re tempted to argue for the truth but not love our enemies, to be committed to missions without caring for the lost.

Still today, it’s possible to defend God’s Word and our nation yet destroy others. We might be glad to see sinners change, but the question remains: have they seen our love?

We’re tempted to argue for the truth but not love our enemies, to be committed to missions without caring for the lost.

Such mercy is about far more than acts of charity—even more than feelings of empathy. So we must ask ourselves if we’re willing to show tangible acts of kindness. Are we willing to get to know sinners, to listen to their arguments, to understand their concerns, to care for their needs? Are we willing to welcome them into our homes, eat with them, love them?

Jesus says mercy is primary in evangelism. It’s more fundamental than sacrifice. Why? Perhaps because genuine mercy will ultimately prompt you to sacrifice. And because God doesn’t just want people to repent. He wants them to know his practical love.