(Bible quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise stated)
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
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”.
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:
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:
We should keep the law because we want to obey His top two priorities – love God and love other people.
Mercy, not sacrifice!