I mentioned recently that there was a particular verse that kept coming up for me as I study Scripture which I feel I would like to gain a better understanding of this year. The verse is in Hosea 6:6, and says, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
In the context, God speaks these words through the prophet Hosea to Israel and Judah, pointing out that their faithfulness is “like a morning cloud, And like the early dew it goes away.” He is disappointed because His people, though they might continue to go through the motions of sacrifice and offering, are somewhere else in their hearts.
This verse jumped out at me as I read Matthew 9 one day. Jesus is being questioned by the Pharisees because He eats with tax collectors and sinners. And to the Pharisees, that just ain’t cool. This is His reply. (I think we often focus on the first part).
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Keeping a metaphorical finger on the page with those words in Matthew 9, flip over to chapter 12, and you’ll find a similar story. This time the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath, because they’re hungry. They are, as you might expect, pretty quick to point out the error of the disciples’ ways.
Jesus responds by retelling the story of David, entering the house of the Lord to eat the showbread which it was unlawful for him to eat. And he speaks of the priests who bring their own imperfections to the temple on the Sabbath, who are also blameless. Then he speaks the words again:
But 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 even of the Sabbath.
It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Remember that verse I gave you to study for homework last week? This was the test, and you failed.”
Just after these verses, Matthew recounts the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Since the Pharisees took offense at this, too, it is as if the writer is making sure we are getting the point.
So, Jesus, what’s the point?
Even before Christ entered the picture — way back in Hosea — we see that God is looking for something other than fervent religious activity. And it seems like He’s pointing at the heart. He’s hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The disciples are eating when they’re hungry. A man with a withered hand is being healed.
The Hebrew word for Mercy, chesed, refers to God’s steadfast love and His covenant loyalty.
Why is mercy closer to God’s heart than sacrifice? Why does He care more about seeing mercy in the hearts of His people than seeing them dotting the right i’s and crossing the right t’s?
Because He wants the world to see Him in His people. He wants His people to be a reflection of His heart, His image, and His chesed-steadfast-love-covenant-loyalty-mercy to a world in need.
Join me tomorrow, and let’s dive a little deeper down this rabbit hole, to see where it leads.
Lord, break our hearts for what breaks yours.