At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?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 12:1-8 (ESV)
One of the main themes of the Gospel of Matthew is righteousness. Matthew presumably was writing to a Jewish audience, and while he was focused on presenting Jesus as the Messiah as well as on his divinity, the emphasis on the call to what could be called a “meta-righteousness”—that is, a higher righteousness than that which was the focus of the Pharisees—is clear. Israel, who was as God’s Chosen People called to be righteous, failed in that endeavor and often was overtly rebellious. So, while my purpose is to look specifically at the Law, it seems this slight diversion is warranted.
Mercy, not sacrifice
In the above passage, Jesus directly quotes Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy [or steadfast love] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And this is not the first time Jesus has quoted this verse. Earlier, in Matthew 9:10-13, we see this exchange:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “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 sinners.” (ESV, emphasis mine)
It would seem that Jesus is addressing the same group of Pharisees, as in Chapter 12 he tells them that if they had followed his earlier advice and learned what the Hosea passage was talking about, they would not have condemned the guiltless.
There are a couple of interesting things here that are often overlooked (most teachers seem to focus on Jesus being “Lord of the Sabbath”). First, when you look at the context and the combined verses, it seems that Jesus is using the terms “guiltless,” “sick,” and “sinners” to refer to the same people.
Next, in the Matthew 12 passage, Jesus uses 2 Old Testament analogies of Sabbath-breaking to support his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. He did not argue that the Law did not apply, but argues that some Law-breaking is simply acceptable, and that some law-breakers remain guiltless.
Finally, note that Jesus is not using the argument that “that was then, this is now,” implying a difference between Old and New Covenant approaches to the Law. Rather, he goes right to examples of the Jewish Priesthood, King David and the OT prophet Hosea to demonstrate that God has not changed. Reading through the Hosea context, we read of God’s judgment on the rebellious Israelites, not because of a failure to keep the fine points of the Law but for being a wicked people, failing to show mercy to other nations or even to each other. Even in the Old Testament, God was a God of mercy, preferring mercy to sacrifice and law-keeping.
Mercy, Mercy Me
It can be argued that Jesus is also equating righteousness with showing mercy. Throughout Jesus’ teaching we can see references to Israel’s failure not in not keeping the Law, but in the failure to show mercy to sinners and to the Gentile nations. As mentioned before, Israel’s calling was to be a blessing to the nations, not to be a judge of nations. Jesus takes the baton from Israel, so to speak, completing the race by showing mercy and by fulfilling the Law.
The last post in the series dealt with the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Here, now, we see that continued with the call to learn mercy or “steadfast love.”
We see this story continued as Jesus walks into the synagogue, still on the Sabbath, and demonstrates mercy by healing a man with a withered hand, which again breaks the technical Law of Sabbath-keeping. When he leaves the synagogue, many follow him, and he continues to heal those who are sick, but in private, not to make any sort of point. Again, mercy rules.
Matthew makes the connection to Isaiah 42, quoting
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matt 12:18-21 ESV)
God’s heart has never been in keeping the Law, though the Law is not without its purpose or value; rather, the God who does not change has always been a God who desires mercy, not sacrifice. And, we see that Jesus appears to be making the distinction between the pseudo-righteousness of the Pharisees and the true righteousness of those who show—and who need—mercy.