I have reoccurring nightmares about Dr. Holloway. That’s not his real name. But the story is. Dr. Holloway taught a history class at my university. He would give four major tests each semester. Two would be multiple choice. Those weren’t so bad. The other two were essay. I liked to write so the essay part was fine. What wasn’t fine is he would write one question on the board and you either knew something about that one thing or you didn’t. He also scheduled his tests on Monday, which ruined the weekend.
On one occasion I had studied as well as I could. The test covered over 500 pages of the textbook. I walked in the room, sat down, got my paper and pen ready, and then he wrote on the blackboard one question.
I panicked. I could not remember anything about what he put on the board. I did some deep breathing exercises to calm my nerves but still nothing came. So I started writing about everything I could remember in the 500 pages. I even wrote with a rhythm worthy of a Martin Luther King speech. I would say, “I can tell you about …” and I’d write all I could about that topic and then I’d say, “But I can’t tell you about the question you wrote on the board.”
I repeated this cadence for several pages until I had written down everything I could remember. I wanted him to know I had not blown off the test. I just didn’t know the answer to the question he was asking.
Have you ever felt life was something like that? You know quite a bit about a lot of things but maybe you don’t know the answer to the one thing that’s going to be on the test? Sometimes you just want to know what is on the test, don’t you?
Unlike Dr. Holloway Jesus does not leave the test question to guesswork. There’s a story in Matthew 12 where Jesus and his disciples are going through a grain field. They’re hungry so they pluck some heads of the grain to eat. The Pharisees register that as “work” and unlawful and they voice their dissatisfaction with the group.
Jesus responds by reminding them that David—their great king—did something similar. And then he said, “…if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.’
They should have known. Three chapters earlier they had been at Matthew’s house and Jesus told them then to “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” Like many students they had either blown off their studies or quickly forgotten.
Mercy is the test. “Learning” it means to “learn by putting into practice.” This type of learning happens when head knowledge becomes heart knowledge and flows out of a person’s life.
When you learn mercy you stop being the moral police for everyone else and let Jesus do his work in your own heart.
When you learn mercy you dethrone yourself and allow Jesus to sit as Lord of your life.
When you learn mercy you no longer see people as issues or problems but as people with needs.
A friend of mine and I were frustrated with Dr. Holloway’s tests so we devised a plan for study. Before the essay tests we would get together and work our way through the pages we were to be tested on. We would review the big ideas, the important dates, and the primary people.
But then we’d find some obscure pieces of history that covered only a couple of paragraphs and we’d say: “This is not that important. It will probably be on the test.” And it always was. Every test after the first one we aced because we figured out what would be on his test.
That first test, though, set me up for a failing grade. I went to talk to Dr. Holloway about it. He didn’t promise me anything. He just listened politely. When grades came out I expected to get the first failing grade of my life. Instead he gave me a “C.” “C” as in Mer-“C”.
Jesus has stepped to the chalk board and written one word: Mercy.
That’s the test. Make sure you go and learn it today.