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I Desire Mercy not Sacrifice

7th December 2006

The phrase “I Desire Mercy not Sacrifice” originates in Hosea 6:6. It comes in the middle of a prophesy (starting in verse 4) that lays out the dreadful state of God’s people at that time, including murders committed by bands of priests and worship involving prostitution. And God says:

Hosea 6:6
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

The people had got the idea that it didn’t matter how badly they behaved, so long as the kept up the prescribed temple worship, sacrificing morning and evening according to the ordinances in Scripture. And God was saying that the lives they led were more important than the sacrifices they offered.

A similar situation today would be if people thought that they could do as they pleased, sin as much as they felt like, all week, so long as they confessed it all and took Communion each Sunday. It’s the idea that if we do the religious stuff, that will take care of God and we’ll be all right.

And there’s a lot of it about.

The Bible tells us of two occasions when Jesus quoted this prophecy. Both are in Matthew’s gospel. I mentioned the first time prophecy in last week’s column:

Matthew 9:9-13
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. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples.
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?"
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Jesus explained that His ministry was only applicable to the people that needed it (of course). Those people were - and are – sinners!

Of course, we’re all sinners. But in order to benefit from Jesus’s ministry, we need to realise and acknowledge that we are.

The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus was eating (a sign of friendship) with “tax collectors and sinners”. Well, yes, Jesus is the friend of sinners:

Matthew 11:19
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners".’

That God He is! He’s my friend. And I’m a sinner. And I hope He’s your friend. And I’m sure you’re a sinner.

I think most Christians understand this. But are we, ourselves, willing to associate with the outcasts, the dishonest, the “sinners”? After all, we’re sinners, too. And they need Jesus just like we do.

But Jesus also says:

verse 13
But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Well, what does it mean?

Last week, I said it means loving and forgiving others is much more important than any religious ceremony or observance.

It’s really important that we go to church, that we worship God, that we spend time in prayer and Bible study, that we tithe our income, that we serve in some capacity in our local church. But it’s even more important that we live loving, merciful lifestyles, out of loving, merciful hearts. In fact, to go through all the religious motions and do all the spiritual things, without loving and merciful hearts, is surely the height of hypocrisy!

Do you remember Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector?

Luke 18:10-14
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

The Pharisee was putting his confidence in his own goodness. In particular, he was relying on the religious things he did – he went to the temple to pray, he fasted and he tithed. And Jesus said “So what?” The Pharisee wasn't justified before God! We cannot be justified by religious observances. Sadly, I still hear people praying similar self-justifying prayers in churches today.

The tax collector asked God for mercy – and received it!

(He would have had to wait a long time for any mercy from the Pharisee)

I mentioned the second time Jesus quoted this in my column dated 13th September 2006, called “religion or people”.

Matthew 12:1-8
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some ears of corn and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath."
He answered, "Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 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. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

This time, the disciples (not “tax collectors and ‘sinners’”, although they were sinners, of course) had broken a Pharisaical law about picking grain on the Sabbath. Of course, it’s no more effort to pick a few grains of corn than it is to lift a biscuit off a plate, but the Pharisees had their rules, and they were ready to condemn anybody who broke them.

I've met plenty of religious people like that.

This rule is not Biblical – it’s one they made up for themselves. Jesus could have pointed that out. But He didn’t. He decided instead to up the ante. He pointed out that David broke Biblical law and then said that He was right to do so! Can you hear this? It was, generally speaking, good for those who were not priests to refrain from eating consecrated bread. But when David and his men needed to eat, that took precedence over the law!

Then Jesus accused the Pharisees of “condemning the innocent”. Breaking a regulation doesn’t necessarily make you guilty! (Although breaking the moral law does). In Mark’s account of this story (see Mark 2:23-28) Jesus says:

Mark 2:27
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Understand this, please. God gives us laws. He gives these laws because they’re good for us. He tells us to rest one day in seven because it’s good for us to rest one day in seven. He tells us not to steal, murder, commit adultery or tell lies about people because society works better when we don’t. God is not capricious. He doesn’t give us laws just to irritate us or to test us. He gives us laws to help us.

It can be a sacrifice to keep the law, in a sense. But the real reason to keep the law is because God gave us the laws. And He did so to explain to us what it is to love our neighbour.

If we are going to live a loving, merciful lifestyle, we won’t steal, murder, commit adultery or tell lies about people – because it’s not loving or merciful to do so.

God save us from keeping the law because we think it will keep us right with God. It never can. Only the atoning sacrifice of Jesus can make us right with God:

Romans 8:3
... what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering...

We should keep the law because we want to obey His top two priorities – love God and love other people.

Mercy, not sacrifice!