Meditating on the Commands of Christ (28): What Does It Mean to Have Mercy and Not Sacrifice?

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

Last Sunday, on Easter morning, a friend who had been dear to my heart for almost 50 years died. Two of his daughters were at his bedside, holding his hands when he breathed his last. This was not an easy death. After 30 years of marriage, my friend walked out on his wife and family in order to pursue a homosexual lifestyle. You can imagine how shattered his married daughters were to discover that their father preferred seeking his own pleasure (over a thousand miles away) to being an active husband, father, and grandfather. I think their act of honoring love is the perfect example of what Jesus was trying to teach in today’s study.

Jesus had invited Matthew to become his disciple, and Matthew immediately accepted. One of the first things Matthew did in response was invite all his friends over for a big dinner party so they could meet Jesus. What a perfect way for Matthew to share what he was experiencing with those he loved best! When you love someone, don’t you want them to meet your friends?

Well, the Pharisees objected to this and criticized Jesus for eating with “publicans and sinners,” but—as is the usual case—they didn’t confront Jesus directly. Rather, they complained to Jesus’ disciples. Nevertheless—as is also usual—the complaints eventually made their way to Christ, who had no qualms about explaining his actions: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).

This is not idle conversation. Jesus really wanted the Pharisees to understand this saying, which came from Hosea 6:6, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” We see the end of the Pharisees failure to understand just a few chapters later, where they are criticizing Jesus and his disciples for picking ears of corn from a field to eat on the Sabbath. There Jesus rebukes them for not learning what he’d tried to teach them: “If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day” (Matthew 12:7-8).

What is it that Jesus wants us to learn? Showing mercy means even more to God than offering a sacrifice. Loving others who need help is more pleasing to God than bringing him an offering. In fact, caring for those in need is an offering to God. It is a sacrifice of love! Which would make you happier: Having your little girl bring you a bunch of flowers, or watching your little girl helping a smaller child who had fallen down and was crying?

Life is not about external conformity; it’s about internal transformation. We are created as image-bearers of God, and He wants us to grow more and more like He is, not in the ways we can’t (such as in his omnipotence and omniscience) but in his attributes. Specifically, in this context, God is not only just, he is also deeply merciful. The Jewish leaders in the days of Christ had added an insurmountable heap of regulations onto the laws that God had given them. For instance, there is no law in the Bible against inviting people to your home to hear the message of Christ, but the Pharisees thought it was scandalous to associate with anyone who didn’t agree with them politically or religiously. Wrong.

Concerning their allegation that Jesus was “breaking the sabbath,” the principle God gave us was to set aside a day for rest and worship each week, which was not meticulously defined in Exodus 20:8. It says simply, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Jesus and his disciples were probably much better able to rest and worship with a light meal of fresh corn than they would have been on empty stomachs!

In the Bible, we are given all sorts of principles to guide our lives. I like to think of them as the Path of Life. In Psalm 25:10 we learn, “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.” I think of mercy and truth as being the boundary markers along the Path of Life. What we do must be “truth” (must be right) based on keeping God’s laws, but what we do must also be bounded by mercy. If we fail to do what’s right, or if we fail to do what’s merciful, then we have gotten off the true Path of Life. One regrettable memory I have is turning down an opportunity to see a sick sister because I thought it would be wrong to miss church. The scripture tells us not to forsake “the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Hebrews 10:25), but that does not mean it is always wrong to miss any service of our churches. There are times when it’s more important to be showing mercy, which is exactly what my friend’s two daughters were doing on Easter. Instead of being in church with their children, they flew across the country to bring the light of God’s presence into a very sad, dark corner of this world.

Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck;
write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 3:3).

Texts for this study:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:10-13).

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat.But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day” (Matthew 12:1-8).

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and thy judgments are as the light that goeth forth.For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me” (Hosea 6:4-7).

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20: 8-11).