In Matthew 9, Jesus responded to the Pharisees who had asked why He eats with tax collectors and sinners by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
Then only a few chapters later, we see the follow up in Matthew 12, as the Pharisees were taking issue with the disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath as they were walking through the grain fields, errantly claiming it was unlawful. Jesus responded with “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And 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 of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:6-8)
The Pharisees apparently did not go and learn what Jesus had referenced to them from Hosea the first time He mentioned it, and they continued to do wrong by God Himself by not following through with what He commanded them both through the prophets and in person face to face through Jesus. They may have not gone and learned what that meant, but we can learn and dig into the word to learn what it means.
Both times here, Jesus referenced Hosea 6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) And if we look at the state of Israel during the time of Hosea, we can see that they were a people who were unrepentant, having whored after false gods and idol worship. The verses leading up to verse 6 indicates how God had struck them down and bound them up, but was a call to return to the LORD that He may heal them. God made a heart-breaking mention of the waning love of Ephraim and Judah, likening it to the morning cloud and dew that goes away early. God’s heart was broken at the unfaithfulness of His people, and He makes fully known what He desires: mercy, not sacrifice.
He didn’t want lip service, He didn’t want eye service, He didn’t want a physical offering, He wanted them and their hearts; and the only way that was going to happen was through His great love and mercy found in the redemptive act of Jesus, the Messiah. He had even previously mentioned in verse 2, that “after two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live before Him.” (Hosea 6:2) Everything that the Father gave to them through the prophets all pointed to Jesus.
When Jesus told the Pharisees to go and learn what it meant, He was opening the opportunity for them to actually seek truth, in which they would ultimately find themselves led back to Him, our way and truth and life, but with a different heart and mind. Jesus would have no longer been the Sabbath breaker to them, but the Lord of the Sabbath and of all.
Legalism has never been the heart of God, even in giving the Law of Moses. God didn’t give the Israelites the Law in order to enslave them to it, but to instead help them realize their falling short of God’s glory and then point them to Himself, who would ultimately fulfill the law and abolish it in Jesus’ flesh, taking on the full wrath of God in our place. These Pharisees had gotten so wrapped up in trying to fulfill their own righteousness under the Law, no matter that it was impossible, that they failed to see and accept the imputation of God’s righteousness being so mercifully offered to them in the person of Jesus.
How often are we getting wrapped up in trying to act righteous? This is a personal question to take some time to think on, because if you’re like me, your initial response is going to be something like, “I know my acts of righteousness are as dirty rags/used menstrual rags and that it’s in Christ alone that my righteousness is found.” But that doesn’t actually answer the question at hand does it? What we know in our minds doesn’t always instantly translate to operating in our actions does it? Legalism can slip in rather sly like sometimes and it’s not until it’s getting a foothold that we notice it. I usually find my thinking towards others to be a good indicator on the mercy vs sacrifice scale. If I am looking at other Christians and judging their actions, motives, thoughts, and measuring them up to how I think or expect a Christian “should” act, even if it only be in my mind and never spoken, I know my heart scale has tipped and is heavily leaning on a legalistic/sacrifice mindset. I’m failing in those moments to view people through the lens of Christ, and instead putting myself in a place of righteous judge that I not only have no place being, but don’t even have the capacity to be in because I am a fellow sinner saved by the grace and mercy of God too.
This can also be an issue in holding ourselves to the standard of God’s righteousness, in order to achieve it on our own. In this sense, we still miss the mark yet instead of falling again at the foot of the cross and accepting His mercy and covering in His righteousness, we’re trying to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and try harder to achieve the unachievable through our strife and sacrifice.
Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
God came down in person and showed us what is good and what He desires and requires of us. We can’t do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God if we’re living in legalism. We either live and die by the Law or by the blood of Jesus. We need to remember that legalism breeds pride, not humility. Humbly walking with God comes from understanding that justice was had by the loving mercy found in the shedding of Jesus’ blood for us, so that we can be reconciled and walk humbly with our God. God has made it clear that the choice we have is to choose between His mercy or our sacrifice, but only one of those will lead us in the way everlasting to our merciful God.
If you have ears to hear, understand that our Heavenly Father and loving Savior desire mercy, not sacrifice.