I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
This short sentence appears twice in Matthew, once in chapter 9 and again in chapter 12. In the first instance the form is “Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” and appears at the end of an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees who were complaining (read: judging) about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Our phrase is this instance comes between two statements about those considered Less-Than: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It is the mercy of God that moves him to go to those who are on the outside of proper society, to people who were routinely ostracized by the righteous ones. Jesus isn’t interested in the right sacrifices done at the Temple by people whose hearts avoid considering those on whom they look in disgust. If the Pharisees considered themselves as OK with God, why would the merciful God come to them? More importantly, why don’t they understand that?
In the second instance, the phrase comes in the middle of Jesus’ discussion about the Sabbath. Specifically, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who complained that the disciples had picked and hulled grain on the Sabbath. The phrase appears in this form: “And if you had known what this means….you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
This instance comes after a discussion of correct behavior, specifically with regards to the Law and rules for the Sabbath. Prior to verse 9, we hear the lesson that rules are great for normative behavior, but they take a back seat when they come in conflict with the needs of people. Beginning in verse 9, Jesus drives that point home using an opportunity to heal to make his point. His conclusion?
It is always right to do good – especially on the Sabbath.
Why especially on the Sabbath? Because this day prefigures the rest offered by God to his people. Jesus’ healings are concrete examples of what God’s Sabbath actually points toward – the setting to rights the entire Creation. The rest God offers is made real through these healings. In verse 8, Jesus had referred to himself as the Lord of the Sabbath. This isn’t so much that he is in charge of the Sabbath, but that he is the true Sabbath.
We enter his rest which is he. We enter the cosmic Sabbath.
He is Lord of the Sabbath because he is the Sabbath.
We are then challenged to learn for ourselves what the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means in our time, in our places, to those around us. We are tempted to look for rules and make observations that others aren’t toeing the line because well, it’s easy. Often times we use ourselves as the standard for others; if we can figure out how not to use meth, surely you should have figured it out too. Then we go to church and sing hymns to our God who would have been visiting and healing the meth users that we have just dismissed. Those hymns, sung by us, are of no benefit to either us or God – or anyone else, because they are sung by we who think we are more righteous than they.
Have we learned that mercy is more highly prized by God than is religious ritual or rule keeping? Not that ritual or rule keeping is wrong – except when they prevent us from doing good for people.
As with many sayings of Jesus, this one contains a paradox. Mercy and sacrifice are one and the same idea when I apply them to myself. For me to extend mercy to you, I must sacrifice my interest in the situation, submitting it to your best interest. The difference? Mercy is a positive, other centered behavior. Sacrifice is a negative compulsion which has me at the center. While they can be described as two sides of the same coin, properly understood mercy motivates my sacrifice for you. (All Scripture ESV)