9 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
10 Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.
11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
13 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Sometimes, we just have to take Jesus at His word and do exactly what He says. We can read all we want–the Bible, commentaries, books about Christian living–and we can sing all the hymns and spiritual songs, and we can attend all the prayer meetings we can imagine. But in the end we just have to hunker down and do some learning all on our own. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to remind us of what Jesus said and to guide our hearts to the truth. All the others things we do won’t mean much if we don’t understand WHY we’re doing them. So when I come across a verse that says “But go and learn…” then I figure it must be time to go and learn.
In today’s verses, Jesus is sitting at a table with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees question why He does that. The implication is either that it is a waste of time, or else that their sinfulness and uncleanness will rub off on Him. Either way, the Pharisees–being all caught up in doing the right things or in NOT doing the WRONG things–are offended that Jesus would spend time with such people. For the Pharisees, the most important thing is to follow the law in the first place, not repentance after failing to follow the law. The Pharisees just don’t understand repentance, and they most certainly don’t understand mercy. For them, the law is the law, and there is no room for mercy in their hearts. As far as the Pharisees are concerned, the only thing that could redeem such people would be enormous amounts of burnt offerings and sacrifices.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has encountered the Pharisees’ lack of understanding of forgiveness and mercy.
2 Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”
3 And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!”
4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?
5 “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?
6 “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”–then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
7 And he arose and departed to his house.
So which is easier, to avoid the sinners and tax collectors altogether, or to come among them and share the forgiveness of God through the gospel? Which is easier, to judge someone in place of God, or to allow God Himself the opportunity to forgive them? Which is easier, to make a year of burnt sacrifices for all the sins we keep committing, or else to seek mercy and truly repent of our ways? What would God want? As Jesus said:
Hosea 6: 6
“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
It seems pretty clear to me that God desires mercy and not sacrifices, that He wants us to know Him more rather than follow our own ways.
6 With what shall I come before the LORD,
And bow myself before the High God?
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
Ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 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?
There it is again, “to love mercy.” And not just that, but also to “do justly”–i.e. to follow His judgments and be fair in our own–and to “walk humbly with your God”–literally in Hebrew, to humble ourselves to walk with God. It’s that last directive that caused the Pharisees such problems, because they were too proud to bow themselves to walk with God, too proud to offer mercy to sinners, too proud to be as just as God. They were so sure of their own righteousness that they couldn’t see that they fell short of their goal. They didn’t understand that, for all their esoteric rules and loopholes concerning the law of Moses, they could not ever achieve the righteousness God required. (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:15-16) Their sacrifices were empty because they didn’t change their hearts, only kept offering penance for things of which they did not truly repent.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
Justice and mercy and faith are what the Lord requires.
32 So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He.
33 “And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But after that no one dared question Him.
To love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, means that we humble ourselves to seek God first. And to love our neighbors as ourselves means we are just and merciful with them. For us to love God and our fellow man is worth more to God than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices we could possibly make.
Most importantly, we must remember that it is not OUR mercy or justice which saves us from punishment for our sins. It is only through the grace and mercy of God Himself that we are saved. (Titus 3:4-7) So, when God says to us “I desire mercy,” He is not only saying He desires mercy from us toward others but that we can also expect mercy from Him, for He desires to be merciful, to be faithful, to be just, to be gracious.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
9 He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Jesus said to the scribe, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'” It means we should perfect ourselves in the way of the Lord: to be merciful because He is merciful, to be loving because He is loving, to be just because He is just, and to be humble before the Lord because Jesus Christ was humble and obedient even unto death on the Cross. Jesus sat among sinners so that they knew that God was with them, that God desired to show them mercy.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Let us therefore show mercy and receive mercy. Let us love and receive love. Let us be just and receive the justice of a righteous and loving and merciful God. Let us not forgo sacrifices so much as make our sacrifices as our just duty to the Lord who has shown such great mercy. Let us always be of like mind with Jesus, who came to call sinners just like us to repentance and new life.
Father God, although Your thoughts are much higher than my own, and Your ways beyond my understanding, I desire to know how to be loving and merciful and just as You are. Teach me Your ways, O Lord, so that I may bring You glory and praise from all who come to know You. Help me to grow in my knowledge of Your grace and Your faithfulness throughout all lives and ages of man. Guide me with Your Holy Spirit to be more like Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord. Amen.