Part of today’s read included two occasions where Jesus said the same thing. In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus visits his new disciple, Matthew (Levi), in his home. Matthew had invited many of his friends to meet Jesus. They were a group of tax collectors and sinners, not the kind of people that a respected rabbi would spend time with, according to the self-righteous Pharisees, who were blind to their own sinfulness. When Jesus heard the Pharisees gossiping about Him for eating with sinners, He tells them that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. He admonishes them to “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion (mercy), and not sacrifice.’”
Later on, Jesus is walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples are hungry, so they help themselves to the grain. The Pharisees accuse them of breaking the law of the Sabbath (picking grain was considered work). Jesus responds by reminding them that David “broke” the law when he and his hungry soldiers ate the shewbread from the house of God and that even the priests “work” on the Sabbath, yet they are innocent. He states that “something greater than the temple is here,” and again admonishes them, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Jesus is quoting from Hosea 6:6, where God tells the idolatrous children of Israel, “I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The people honored God with their lips by showing up with the appropriate sacrificial lamb at the appointed time, but their hearts were far from God.
What does Jesus want us to learn? The Pharisees were focused on appearing holy and righteous on the outside, but their hearts were hard and unmerciful toward the people they were supposed to be leading to God. They had no heart to know God personally, nor any compassion for those who were hurting, or lost, or suffering. Jesus, on the other hand, saw people with compassion. He looked beyond their outward appearance, past their sin, and saw their heart.
Sacrifice without mercy will only lead to empty religious acts. We go to church, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, but our hearts are far from God because we don’t see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior. We do things in order to be seen as “good people,” but our hearts are not moved with mercy and compassion toward others. A merciful heart comes from receiving mercy and recognizing our own sinfulness. It’s knowing, “but for the grace of God…it would be me.”
As I ponder Jesus’ words, I have to ask myself, “Why do I serve?” Is it to make me feel good, or because I truly love others and desire to show compassion and mercy to meet their needs? As Jesus asks us, let’s “go and learn” what this means.