But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13)
When Jesus came to Levi’s home for dinner and sat with all of his friends, the Pharisees asked the disciples critically, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Matthew 9:11). In reply, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Jesus was most likely quoting from Hosea 6:6, which states: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” This same teaching is found in 1 Samuel 15:22:
“But Samuel replied: ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’”
In the same way that Jesus commanded the Pharisees, we are also to “go and learn what this means.” Those who were criticizing Jesus were strict adherents to the old sacrificial system. They were criticizing Him because He was fellowshipping with the very people who needed mercy. His critics were overly concerned about observance of rigid religious rites, such as the rites of sacrifice, but they had little regard for the needs of those to whom Jesus and Levi were witnessing and revealing the mercy of God. It was not the old pharisaical system that would meet desperate spiritual needs of the people in Jesus’ presence that night. It was the mercy revealed in the message of the gospel that Jesus and Levi were sharing.
The Pharisees tended toward exclusivism. They kept to themselves and obviously feared polluting their fellowship by being in the company of “sinners.” Jesus condemned that attitude and opened the door for the New Testament church to welcome and fellowship with those who need the gospel.
This concept was very important to Jesus, for He quoted this Scripture verse again in Matthew 12:7 when the disciples were criticized for picking ears of grain to satisfy their hunger as they went through the fields on the Sabbath. Jesus said that if those who were criticizing knew what this verse meant, they would not condemn the guiltless disciples. The gospel of mercy is much more important to Jesus than the strict religious observances of the Pharisees. It is more important to show love and to meet need than to fuss over religious rites.
We can think, “How terrible for the Pharisees to have such an exclusive attitude that they could not mingle with those who needed mercy!” But I believe that there are many in the church today who need to “go and learn what this means.” We should think of this commandment when new people come into the church—new converts or even not-yet believers who are different from us.
Some churches tend to reject outsiders just as the physical body tends to reject a transplanted organ. It takes a generous portion of the love of God and a comprehension of the mercy of God to counteract this rejection.
Mary was a prostitute and on methamphetamine. Her life got so messed up that social services took her daughter away from her. In her intense desire to get her daughter back, someone suggested she go to church. The person suggested a church near where she lived. She’d never been there, but the people coming out of the church seemed to be happy. One morning, going home from work with $800 in her pocket, Mary drove by that church and decided to go in. The pastor’s message was “The God of Second Chances.” Mary wanted a second chance so badly that she put the $800 into the offering basket and asked to see the pastor. It took the pastor awhile to figure out what Mary did for a living, but even so, he led her to Christ. That pastor showed mercy rather than judgment, and the congregation accepted, nurtured, and discipled her. Today, Mary is a pastor’s wife.
Both the Old and New Testaments bear witness to the command of Christ to be merciful: Micah 6:8 states, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” James 2:12–13 says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Heavenly Father, help me to understand that what is most important to You is mercy that results in salvation, not sacrifices and religious ritual. Show me the many ways You have demonstrated mercy in my life and then help me to pass that along to others. Forgive me, Lord, when I have gotten caught up in religious rules and activities and have judged people according to those things rather than Your grace. I thank You that Your mercy triumphs over judgment.
–Adapted from Encountering Jesus: Praying the Commands of Christ into Your Life by Norval Hadley. This book is available at prayershop.org. Use the code CONPSP3 at checkout to receive an additional 10% discount.
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