“If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.”—Matt 12:8a
This statement is part of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who are complaining
that his disciples are violating the Sabbath by plucking the heads of grain
(i.e. doing the “work” of “harvesting” on the day when work is forbidden).
For years, before I started studying the Bible seriously, I found this statement
of Jesus strangely inconsistent with the rest of his teaching. After all,
wasn’t the New Testament full of statements affirming the value of sacrifice,
Jesus’ own sacrifice of himself and the daily sacrifices we all are called
to make? And why oppose mercy to sacrifice? Don’t the two go together somehow?
These puzzlements were clarified when I finally noticed that Jesus is here
quoting Hosea 6:6. The context of Hosea 6 makes it clear that the sacrifice
in question is the animal sacrifice of the temple liturgy, not sacrifice
in the later Christian sense of generous self-giving service. A full quotation
of Hosea 6:6 makes that obvious: “For I desire love, not sacrifice, and knowledge
of God rather than holocausts.” In the fuller context, the prophet
is speaking in God’s name challenging both Ephraim and Judah for making their
sacrificial worship an empty thing by their injustice and violence.
Jesus is defending his disciples’ spontaneous “snacking” in the grounds that
meeting a basic human need trumps a narrow application of the law.
By citing the example David (1 Samuel 21:6) satisfying his hunger with the
bread of the presence in the sanctuary (strictly illegal, as only the priests
are permitted to do this), Jesus supplies a biblical precedent for this interpretation.
Matthew, in turn, recognizes in Jesus’ compassion a demonstration of Hosea’s
principle of human-to-human mercy being of greater religious importance than
the carrying out of the temple ritual. And so he inserts that half-verse
from Hosea into this account that he inherited from Mark. (He also uses that
same line from Hosea to interpret Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors
and sinners at Matt 9:13.)
Not that Jesus had anything against the temple sacrifices as such. He presumes
that the temple worship is a normal part of Jewish life in his teaching about
reconciliation in the Sermon on the Mount (5:23-24) and about oath taking
(23:16-22). But, in the tradition of the prophets Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah,
and the author of Psalm 50, Jesus also teaches that temple worship is emptied
of meaning when the worshipers are not living out the human-to-human dimensions
of the covenant.
All this is a reminder that our own practices of worship and devotion are
evacuated of meaning to the extent that we fail to treat one another with
mercy and compassion.