I’ve been rereading the New Testament and, as always happens depending on life stage and circumstances, something stood out to me that previously had not: two similar statements made by Jesus when confronted by religious leaders. So, I decided to do a little digging… and here’s where it led.
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” -Matthew 9:13
Matthew records Jesus referencing this part of Hosea a second time:
“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” -Matthew 12:7
Both of the instances in which Jesus quoted Hosea were during a confrontation with religious leaders who were upset that Jesus’ actions did not appear to be religious. The first instance takes place when Jesus is criticized for hanging out with those who would be labeled as outcasts by religious leaders: Tax Collectors and sinners. The second instance is when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of rest. The religious leaders did not like that Jesus was not superficially upholding their customs and rules. Today, perhaps, many religious folks would accuse Jesus of “ruining his witness” by those who he associated with and the way he refused to adhere to certain accepted religious customs.
Jesus is equating the accusations of the religious leaders with that of the nation of Israel hundreds of years earlier. The Israelites were concerned with adhering to religious practice, while not offering mercy and love to others. Hosea 6:6 reveals that God prefers mercy (steadfast love) and the knowledge of God more than religious ritual.
We must be careful to remember that Jesus came to reveal the heart of God as a loving Father, not to institute a new law in order for us to have ammunition against others. As Christians, the basis of our faith is admitting that we are imperfect and in need of God’s mercy. Our confession of faith erases any superiority complex that we may hope to develop, because its foundation is the acknowledgement of our need for a higher power to mercifully guide us from darkness to illumination.
It’s very common to see Christians attacking not only those outside the faith, but also cannibalizing those who belong to Christianity when a failure occurs. When we engage in such behavior we are not acting from a place of holiness or puritanism, we are stepping outside of the teachings of Jesus and into our own desire for superiority. Jesus made it clear where he stood in the conflict between religious condemnation versus mercy: He offered us mercy, then commanded us to have mercy on others (There’s a very good argument to be made scripturally that God’s mercy toward us remains as we extend mercy to others. I write about that concept in my post: Forgiveness).
Doriani summarizes this well in the Reformed Expository Commentary when he writes:
“‘Sacrifice’ here stands for ‘strict obedience to the commands of God.’ There have always been people who think sacrifice—that is, obedience—is more important than mercy. When they see someone break the law, they think, ‘They have violated God’s law; let them bear the consequences. They brought it on themselves.’
Jesus did not come to write ‘A+’ on the moral report cards of all the good boys and girls. He came to call sinners, to invite the bad boys and girls…if he did not come for sinners, he came for no one.
Grace is the way of Jesus. He reached out to Matthew and accepted Matthew as he was. It is the same with the Pharisees and with you and me.”