I Desire Mercy, and Not Sacrifice

The Lord Jesus Christ referred to this scripture twice as recorded in the gospels.

On the first occasion, His message seems to be: associate with the sin sick to bring them healing and exhort those, who consider themselves well and in no need of a doctor, that they need healing, too.

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

On the second occasion, He urged those who considered themselves righteous to obey the substance and not just the form of God’s commandments.

Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:5-8 (ESV)

Clearly, these folks thought themselves better than those around them.

But to what scripture (because the New Testament was not yet written) was the Lord referring? He quoted Hosea 6:6, but verses six and seven complete a thought.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.

Hosea 6:6-7 (ESV)

Textual notes indicate the term steadfast love is rendered mercy in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament).

John Calvin comments on verse six:

It is a remarkable passage; the Son of God has twice quoted it. The Pharisees reproached him for his intercourse with men of bad and abandoned life, and he said to them in Matthew 9, ‘Mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.’ He shows, by this defense, that God is not worshipped by external ceremonies, but when men forgive and bear with one another, and are not above measure rigid. [emphasis added]

Again, in the Matthew 12, when the Pharisees blamed the disciples for gathering ears of corn, he said ‘But rather go and learn what this is, Mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.’ Inasmuch as they were so severe against his disciples, Christ shows that those who make holiness to consist in ceremonies are foolish worshipers of God; and that they also blamed their brethren without a cause, and made a crime of what was not in itself sinful, and what could be easily defended by any wise and calm expounder.

Calvin adds concerning verse seven:

God then subjoins a complaint, — But they like men have transgressed the covenant; there have they dealt treacherously against me. Here God shows that the Israelites boasted in vain of their sacrifices and of all the pomps of their external worship, for God did not regard these external things, but only wished to exercise the faithful in spiritual worship.

Then the import of the whole is this, “My design was, when I appointed the sacrifices and the whole legal worship, to lead you so to myself, that there might be nothing carnal or earthly in your sacrificing; but ye have corrupted the whole law; you have been perverse interpreters; for sacrifices have been nothing else among you but mockery as if it were a satisfaction to me to have an ox or a ram killed. You have then transgressed my covenant; and it is nothing that the people say to me, that they have diligently performed the outward ceremonies, for such a worship is not in the least valued by me.”

We can (and must) replace Calvin’s reference to ‘Israelites who boast in vain’ with the ‘unbelieving church of that age,’ for such they were. And we have these same with us today. It’s not as if they are unaware of the substance of proper worship, it’s just less costly (in the here and now) to practice merely the form of it.

At least two of these folks asked the Lord, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” He answered:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

On another occasion He asked one of these folks how they understood the scriptures in a nutshell and they gave the same answer. To this one, the Lord said, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But, as we are prone to do, let us not go beyond what the scriptures say. The best example that comes to mind of mercy correctly applied is that demonstrated by the Lord.

The Woman taken in Adultery.  1644, Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), Public Domain

The Woman taken in Adultery. 1644, Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), Public Domain

Here’s the entire story from the source:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.  

But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

So there we have it. When someone is repentant from the heart (and surely she was), the Lord says:

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Go and do likewise.

I’m Better Than You?

I’m Better Than You? I know I shouldn’t, but I feel hostile toward someone who indicates, through words or deeds, that they think they’re better than me. Perhaps they’ve denigrated my beliefs, or my world view, or maybe, my God. How dare they do that, I think. They’ll be sorry. God will get them. And I’m not going to warn or pray for them, either.

In his essay, ‘Can We be Good Without God,’ Glenn Tinder describes the setting in which we find ourselves:

The life of every society is a harsh process of mutual appraisal. People are ceaselessly judged and ranked, and they in turn ceaselessly judge and rank others. This is partly a necessity of social and political order… It is partly also a struggle for self-esteem; we judge ourselves for the most part as others judge us. Hence outer and inner pressures alike impel us to enter the struggle.

The process is harsh because all of us are vulnerable… The process is harsh also because it is unjust… Few are rated exactly, or even approximately, as they deserve.

In his book, Revolt Against the Masses, Fred Siegel warns that Nietzsche called for a new aristocracy; an elite to run the world, as H. G. Wells put it. Siegel shows convincingly that this spirit has been at work in the US political system since before World War One.  The C-SPAN talk, in its entirety, is found here.

In the midst of this and other movements, I worry we’ll give our democracy away to totalitarianism.

But Tinder reminds us that something different, sacrificial love, or agape, undergirds our Western moral system:

Agape is the core of Christian morality. Moreover, as we shall see, it is a source of political standards that are widely accepted and even widely, if imperfectly, realized…

Agape means refusing to take part in this process [of mutual appraisal]. It lifts the one who is loved above the level of reality on which a human being can be equated with a set of observable characteristics. The agape of God, according to Christian faith, does this with redemptive power; God ‘crucifies’ the observable, and always deficient, individual, and “raises up” that individual to new life. The agape of human beings bestows new life in turn by accepting the work of God.

So we have agape set against ruthless, condemning judgment. Note that condemning judgment is generally censured whereas discerning judgment is imperative if often lacking. The individual who is exalted by God is simultaneously fallen and at war with God. He or she must discern their entrenched faults to repent of them.

Returning to the initial theme of this essay, when I feel this way, I remember these truths:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:14-21

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Matthew 5:43-45

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” Luke 6:22-23

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? …But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:32-36

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” 1 Peter 4:12-13

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27

“[Peter to the elders] Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:2-3

“[Paul to the Corinthians] To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” 1 Cor. 4:11-13

“[Paul to the Philippians] Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Phil. 3:17

“…[Make] supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings [to God]…for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way…” 1 Tim. 2:1-4

“Let us not grow weary of doing good…” Gal. 6:9-10

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Rom. 16:20 …by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” Rev. 12:11

This last one takes me aback, but it is as true as the others.

Archangel Michael, Guido Reni (1575–1642)

Archangel Michael, Guido Reni (1575–1642), painted circa 1636, public domain-US

After this life is over, the only thing I want to hear from my Lord is: “well done good and faithful servant…” knowing that, after doing all, I’ve done only what I was supposed to do. And I want that for you too. But that’s ultimately a transaction between you and Him.

This is my hope for you.