“Mercy,” Not “Sacrifice”
We have two times recorded by Matthew when Jesus answered Pharisees’ object-tions to what He was doing (or allowing His disciples to do):
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” 3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:1-7)
In the first instance, Jesus has called Matthew as his disciple – simply walked by his tax collecting business and said, “Levi, follow me”… an invitation to come be His disciple and eventually one of the 12 apostles. And just like that, Matthew followed. There has to be some background there, but we can only wonder at it… in some way Matthew knew about Jesus and welcomed the call. Perhaps what had impressed Matthew is that, being one who was on the “outs” with the religious elite, he admired and loved Jesus’ love for the “down and out.”
And who would the “down and out” be? Regarding the Jews of Jesus’ day, there were basically two kinds of people. One was the religiously orthodox (orthodox folks follow established customs and traditions) – this would be the Pharisees and Sadducees. We discover in the gospels that they were sometimes friends (when they joined forces against Jesus) and sometimes foes. Anyway, they were keepers of every petty detail of both Moses’ Law and what the rabbis over the years had come to believe God meant to say but didn’t. They saw themselves as the cream of the crop when it came to keeping all the commands and demands of Jewish religion, first given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai (details mostly in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus) but then explained and expanded by men in commentaries called the Midrash and Mishnah to explain in minute detail what were and were not violations.
Most often to illustrate the way they worked, we reference the command, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (what God said) and then note the dozens of details from them about what is and isn’t “holy” on Sabbath. Most of the supposed violations they added centered around work – what was and wasn’t “work”? And thus men defined, not God, how far a man can travel on Sabbath (7/8 mile) and all kinds of other Sabbath minutiae. A couple I found this week are funny:
(1) a man could not spit on the ground on Sabbath lest he step in the place he spit and he dirt stick to his shoe… moving any dirt would be considered “plowing.”
(2) a woman couldn’t look at herself in her mirror on Sabbath lest she see an unwanted hair growing on her face and pluck it (that would be work).
The Sadducees weren’t as big sticklers for such things as the Pharisees were, but they were close enough to ally with them and keep peace with them. The two groups needed each other for religious control of the people and for political power in dealing with Herod and the Romans. So they usually pulled in the same direction.
The other class of people were the ha’eretz, an Aramaic word meaning “people of the land.” These folks attempted to follow Moses but not in all the petty detail the Pharisees and Sadducees thought they saw there. They would sacrifice at the temple, go to the prescribed feasts, and be in synagogue. But they scoffed at the orthodox Pharisees and Sadducees. They viewed Pharisees as walking jokes… and poked fun at them with various names. One was “bruised and bleeding” Pharisee… this one would walk down a street looking up lest he see a woman on the same street and lust after her… the humor and the name came in that, walking looking up, means walking into things that bruise and cut.
It’s not the nub of my sermon, but I wonder here, just as a quick side trip, if we can’t see ourselves here and be instructed by what we see…
Anyway, the religiously orthodox and the people of the land didn’t mix. And the orthodox made a set of rules they were to follow vis-à-vis the people of the land: (1) no travelling together, (2) no business together, (3) no giving to them or taking from them, (4) and no hospitality to them or from them.
This 4th one is where Jesus offended them in our first text. He was eating with “tax collectors and sinners” – religiously “dirty” folks who didn’t have things just right (as the orthodox saw “just right”). Seeing Jesus among such riffraff, they scoffed and blustered and protested and judged. How could He possibly think Himself a rabbi and party with such a low-life bunch? So they pulled some disciples aside, looked down their noses at them, and asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10).
Our 2nd text arises in similar circumstances. Jesus and His disciples were traveling through grain fields one Sabbath. The disciples were hungry and plucked grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate it from the husks and ate it. I will not go into the details, but when we search, we find that such is allowable under Moses – it’s not stealing, and it’s not even working according to the Pharisees (can pluck anything you can reach from a road with hands [no tool, that’s work], process it with your hands [no tools, that’s work] and eat it [no fork or spoon, those are tools, that’s work]). Allowable, yes, but a gray enough area that the Pharisees pounced and asked Jesus why His disciples broke the Law, implying He could not be what He said He was if He allowed it.
Lots of background… sorry… but we’re set now for what we need to see and hear.
Jesus tells both sets of accusers to remember something Hosea said: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” He is saying in no unmistakable terms that they are ignorant of the spirit of the Law and rules God gave Moses. And the accuser stands accused (often happened with Jesus). On the 1st occasion, He said, “Go and learn what this means…” That’s a polite saying of the day that meant “you don’t know what you think you know… you’ve missed something important.” In the 2nd instance, He said, “…if you had known what these words mean,”… a more direct statement from Him that they were wrong.
What He pointed them to that they were to “go and learn” and “they didn’t know the meaning of” was something God had said 700 years earlier to the people who made the 10-tribe, Northern Kingdom Israel that had separated from the original Israel when Jeroboam refused the policies of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. This new kingdom left the temple and established a new temple on Mt. Gerizim, left Jerusalem and established a new capital at Samaria. It was eventually served by 14 kings from 970-722 BC, not a one God-fearing enough to lead his people God’s way. God would permanently remove their nation from the face of the earth at the hands of the Assyrian Empire in 722BC. God’s sent Hosea to them a generation before He finally destroyed them, another example among the multitude of examples of His incredible grace in trying to save even the most stubborn and rebellious of men.
Here’s what Jesus knew that the Pharisees had missed: Hosea’s message was that their sacrifices and religious rituals were being done right – they had it down. But what was missing was change in their hearts and lives that worship devoted whole-heartedly to God should always bring. They slaughtered their sheep correctly, they burned their incense properly… they brought their first 10% of crops, and they “sacrificed” (but redeemed their firstborn sons). But they had no thoughts of loving God and neighbor the other six days of the week. They spent those days swindling and oppressing each other, especially the easy targets like the poor, the slave, the diseased and maimed.
And God screamed to them, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Actually, He does desire sacrifice, just not nearly as much as He desires mercy.
Let me see if I can paint a clear picture of the difference between “sacrifice” and “mercy.” “Sacrifice” is something offered to God in worship. Their sacrifices were animals, grain, or oil. So, what are our “sacrifices”? Ah, we attend, we read Bible, we have prayer rituals, we’ll get wet in the water, we get the Lord’s Supper every week (and once a week), we give a bit to the church and to others here and there, and we serve others.
But where is “mercy”? Let me try to find it for us. Let’s make believe for just a minute that I have power over you and I assign you to serve in a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter… So you volunteer, go, get your station, and ladle soup into bowls, or pass out crackers, or hand out a glass of water or tea, or a cup of coffee. The people who pass in front of you are unknowns, on the opposite side of the table, not like you, cut from different cloth and life experiences. And then you go home and check the “I sacrificed” box.
But suppose you go back to do it again… and then again… and eventually you learn homeless John’s name and sit down to have a conversation with him to discover that he once had a great job and a wife and a family, but reversal came (death or divorce), and he couldn’t cope, and his world shattered into 1,000 pieces. Or you get to know soldier Bob, who was his high school class’s valedictorian and president of its Student Council, but he went to war and it’s scenes won’t leave his head and he’s far too jittery and jumpy to spend all day on a factory job with all the whirrs and clangs and warning bells. Then you discover straggly-haired Jo, whose father abused her, and whose husband abused her, and when she told powerful men, not a one cared. So she’s lost her moorings and can’t get herself established in a world of men. Really, she’s scared to death to eat with them at the soup kitchen, or take food from them in the line, but she’s hungry and has nowhere else to get anything to eat. And then “mercy” happens! Your heart begins to stir and you turn over in your mind ways you might help make their lives better. And you begin to invest time and money on top of the thought… and then pull strings to set up appointments, and then are way beyond the “second mile” as you go with them to those appointments. And you see them get better. Oh, and here’s God’s grace and “mercy”: your heart aches a new ache because you want them to meet Jesus. That’s “mercy”!
What did Jesus say to those who believed they had it made and had it right religiously, the boxes all checked, and, were thinking they had a “right to judge others” badge firmly pinned to their shirt by God Himself? “Go and learn what this means… I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Crossing every T and dotting every I is pretty important, but loving people with God’s heart and showing them God’s love and care through your heart of mercy trumps it…