“I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice” (Mt. 9:13; 12:7)

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Mat 9:13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mat 12:7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

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Due to the Literature Bible that I am reading being written in paragraph form rather than verse by verse form, I really began to pick up on some different stuff while reading Matthew. One of those things was Jesus telling the Pharisees to learn what “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” means in Matthew 9:13, and later in Matthew 12:7 rebuking them for not learning what that meant. Upon reading this I began to ponder about what exactly that meant, why was it supposed to be so important to the Pharisees, and in what way it was supposed to apply to the given situation. With these questions in mind, I hope to explain this somewhat mysterious quote that Jesus gives the Pharisees.

When I first read, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” my mind immediately jumped to the Old Testament verse, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” in 1Sa. 15:22. However, when I began to look at the quote, the more obvious reference Jesus was making was “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” In Hosea 6:6. Now, one of the key differences here is the replacement of “mercy” with “steadfast love”. I say this is key because the Hebrew word there carries the weight of the verse.

The Hebrew word for “stead fast love” is “chesed” (H2617 Strong’s Concordance) and is actually used for several different English word translations: mercy, kindness, goodness, pity, favor, and even reproach and wicked. (King James Concordance) In Matthew, since the New Testament comes from Greek, the word used is “eleos” meaning mercy. (G1656 Strong’s Concordance) Now, I’m paying so much attention to this because you have to ask the question, was Jesus referring to “eleos” or “chesed”? Due to Jesus’ audience (the Pharisees which would have been well studied in Old Testament Law), I believe that Jesus was referring to “chesed”. Why is this important, you may ask? Because the word “chesed” appears to be a much more powerful, deep, and beautiful word than “eleos” (no offense to the Greeks).  (Since Hosea is written in Hebrew poetry, you can only expect the best of the best in terms of language.)

Chesed means many different things and can be interpreted many different ways. So much so, that I looked at 19 different translations, and there were at least 8 different ways of saying it: mercy, love, steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, kindness, goodness, loving kindness, and more. (http://biblehub.com/hosea/6-6.htm) One site seems to imply that this word chesed should be viewed as a concept involving all of these definitions into one. (http://www.atonementfriars.org/lectures/i_desire_mercy.htm)  After doing the research, I conclude likewise. Chesed is a word that implies love, loyalty, kindness, goodness, mercy, and even at times reproach.

Now that I’ve beaten the word “chesed” to death, let’s return back to the quote in question with a new perspective of what Jesus meant when he quoted Hosea 6 by saying, “I desire chesed, and not sacrifice”. What Jesus means by this is what God meant in Hosea 6—He wants more than just ritualistic actions of obedience, he wants chesed. God wants love, loyalty, kindness, goodness, and mercy! God wants more than just obedience (which is better than sacrifice), God wants obedience with understanding of His will.

I make the latter claim for one important reason— the second half of Hos. 6:6 which states “the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”. In Hebrew poetry, there is a lot of parallelism, and I believe that is exactly what occurs in Hos. 6:6. I see here that chesed is being paralleled with “knowledge of God” which is can be thought of as an understanding of God’s purpose and His love. To put it simply, I believe that Hos. 6:6 is saying that God desires chesed rather than sacrifice, and would rather humans understand the love of God rather than give Him burnt offerings (sacrifice). Moreover, God desires His people to obey with and/or through chesed which implies not just robotic compliance, but an understanding of the purpose of the law and how it fulfills God’s chesed.

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This, my (maybe) suffering audience is what Jesus was talking about when speaking to the Pharisees. God desires chesed and not sacrifice.

By now, I have already implied the answer to the second question I asked in the beginning. This verse was important to the Pharisees because they were supposed to be immensely knowledgeable in the Old Testament Law. Therefore, since Jesus told them something they should have known, the Pharisees should have jumped right up on it and sought to understand the reference. What makes it really meaningful to the Pharisees is something that will be answered in my next question.

In what way does this apply to the given situation? Answering this question involves looking at the context of each situation.

Mat 9:10-13  And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.  (11)  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  (12)  But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (13)  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

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Mat 12:1-8  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  (2)  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”  (3)  He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: (4)  how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? (5)  Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (6)  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. (7)  And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (8)  For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

(It is important to also look at the Mark account of this latter situation. Mk. 2:23-28)

Let’s digest the scenes. Scene one (chapter 9) gives us the situation of Jesus eating with sinners, and then the Pharisees rebuking him for doing so… Where’s the chesed? Scene two (chapter 12) takes a little more studying, but the disciples were picking corn due to hunger and the Pharisees blamed them for not observing the Sabbath. It’s not clear how chesed comes in here, but we will see after a while.

In scene one, the use of the Hosea quote is really understandable and appropriate.“…Pharisees wanted to serve God, following all the laws and commandments to the letter. They wanted to be sure that God’s truths were understood and obeyed. Their intentions were good. And because they wanted to do everything correctly, their desire to serve God turned into absolute perfectionism. They obeyed all Jewish laws of cleanliness, sacrifice and obedience for God. The life of a Pharisee was a life of sacrifice and servitude. They were the examples of how to serve God… And because they had sacrificed so much for God, they naturally became PROUD of themselves and set themselves apart from others…from “sinners”…” (http://epistle.us/articles/mercy.html)

Also look at this. ““–and the meaning is, that God takes more delight and pleasure, either in showing mercy himself to poor miserable sinners; or in acts of mercy, compassion, and beneficence done by men, to fallen creatures in distress, whether for the good of their bodies, or more especially for the welfare of their souls, than he does even in sacrifices, and in any of the rituals of the ceremonial law, though of his own appointing…. The force of our Lord’s reasoning is, that since his conversation, with publicans and sinners, was an act of mercy and compassion to their souls, and designed for their spiritual good; it must be much more pleasing to God, than had he attended to the traditions of the elders, they charge him with the breach of-” (http://biblehub.com/matthew/9-13.htm Gill’s Exposition)

Another great comment is by Matthew Henry. “If to do well ourselves is better than sacrifice, as Samuel shows (1Sa_15:22, 1Sa_15:23), much more to do good to others. Christ’s conversing with sinners is here called mercy: to promote the conversion of souls is the greatest act of mercy imaginable;” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible)

However, my favorite quote is definitely from Albert Barnes. “The sense in which our Saviour applies it is this: “You Pharisees are exceedingly tenacious of the “external” duties of religion; but God has declared that he prefers benevolence or mercy to those external duties. It is proper, therefore, that I should associate with sinners for the purpose of doing them good.”” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible)

What can be gathered from the quotes I just gave you is that the quote from Hosea applies well to the Pharisees in Matthew 9 because they showed absolutely no chesed in that they cared so much about being perfect, sacrificing, and hating imperfection that they allowed it to cause them to hate people that were imperfect. This was a lack of chesed on a spiritual level. Therefore, they had a need to learn of it.

I hope you did read that Mark telling of the Sabbath day because it is important to understanding the second scene. This is because we need to understand that the Sabbath was not made for God, but made for man (Verified by looking at Deut. 5:14). Therefore, when the Pharisees said that they had broken command by gleaning corn to eat on the Sabbath, they were grossly misusing God’s command. The disciples were hungry! Apparently the Sabbath was not meant to be another form of sacrifice to God, but was meant to be God’s ordained day to give back to the Israelites by making it their day of rest (This becomes even more understandable when taking into perspective the curse on Adam in Genesis). Therefore, it reasonable and lawful for the disciples to get some corn to eat, and for the Pharisees to demand sacrifice is a lack of chesed on a physical level.

This is where the second part of my explanation of chesed and Hos. 6:6 comes into play. The Pharisees’ misuse and malpractice of the Sabbath day showed a lack of understanding in the commandment of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were obviously just being robotically compliant with the scriptures, not understanding why the laws were so, demanding the same compliance from those around them, which resulted in a lack of chesed. I think that Jesus is trying to say that had they actually sought to understand and grow in the knowledge of God, chesed would have naturally followed. However, since they focused on just methodically going through a checklist of rules, they lost sight of the true meaning of God’s law.

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Another great explanation is offered here. “However, over time the Israelites began to worship other gods while continuing the ritual of the sacrifices. They “obeyed the Law,” yet they did not display love toward God, and they did not truly know Him. Hosea’s message was a response to Israel’s hypocrisy. God desired their love over external practices of piety. He longed for His people to long for Him rather than simply continue a religious tradition.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/mercy-not-sacrifice.html) This explanation of Hosea 6:6 fits fantastically with the problem Jesus was pointing out to the Pharisees. They had focused so much on just obeying the law that they lost sight of the big picture—they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The result of their lack of sight was their unlawful oppression on those around them. What Jesus pointed out was that their lack of sight resulted in a lack of chesed.

“Now notice this little remark Jesus says to the Pharisees: “But go and learn what this means:” Why did Jesus say this? Because Jesus knows all about the Pharisees. That was their thing! Debating, analyzing, arguing, dissecting, trying to get the exact meaning of every word in the Scripture. Yet they couldn’t recognize COMPASSION because their hearts were empty! He is basically saying, “Go off and study, have your meetings, discussions and debates and try to figure what LOVE is all about.” Jesus knew they would NEVER GET IT-”(http://epistle.us/articles/mercy.html)

This is a remark on Matthew chapter 9, but it goes well with both scenes. Jesus told the Pharisees to learn chesed, knowing that they wouldn’t because they were so focused on obeying the letter of the law that they had lost sight of God’s love, and what His law was all about. The Pharisees had no sense of chesed because they obedience had become completely self-serving. They were no longer obeying out of love; they were not longer sacrificing to give back to God. Instead, the Pharisees were obeying and sacrificing merely out of self-preservation and a good image. Jesus was making a point to the Pharisees that their obedience was lacking the correct motive.

I hope that this lengthy exploration of Jesus’ quote has not been too burdensome on the reader, and I hope that I have answered any questions you may have had on the quote. What I have gathered is that the quote is in reference to Hosea 6:6, the emphasis is on the need for chesed, the Pharisees should have known it due to their supposedly immense amount of knowledge in the Old Testament Scriptures, and Jesus was essentially rebuking them for their lack of chesed and emphasis on sacrifice. My conclusion is that Jesus wanted to get across that while obedience is better than sacrifice, obedience involving chesed is greater than mere obedience.

(For the math guys: sacrifice < obedience < obedience + chesed)

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