Ok, so, I always say that the Gospel of John is hands-down my favorite gospel, and John is my favorite apostle, and I secretly (or not so secretly) feel that the proper course of any Christian walk is to end like John did (or like Anna in the temple) as a contemplative mystic where your praise on this earth just merges and blends with the praise we'll give our Savoir in the afterlife as we pass into it.
But right now, I'm really loving the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is always good for a nice, detailed account of parables and miracles, with a hyperfocus on the particulars of Christs' ministry. It's why many of us enjoy the show The Chosen's hypothetical take of Matthew on the Autism spectrum---someone with that level of detail either has the mind for it or is walking around taking notes or both.
And, Matthew is a perfect read leading up into the Christmas season. For those of you who like to pretty much fly past the month of November as a time of harvest and gratitude and skip to Christmas stuff (I so disagree! I'll just voice that here!), the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the books for you to be reading right now!
For me, Matthew is helping me exactly when I need it--searching the New Testament for how God talks about grace, starting with "grace and truth" as I blogged about last time: https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/grace-grace-god-s-grace
I had passed by one example, but then in noticing the repetition, perked up and paid attention. Twice, in fairly quick succession in Matthew's account, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they do not understand Hosea 6:6:
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (NIV).
In saying this, Hosea is showing a thematic kinship to both David and Isaiah, who say the same thing, repeatedly. For example:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire--but my ears you have opened--burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. (Psalm 40:6, NIV)
While there are a number of direct and indirect teachings in the book of Isaiah on this, I'll pick this lengthy one, which pretty much is how the book begins:
The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies...They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! (Isaiah 1:11-15, NIV).
I can't read a single chapter of Isaiah without wincing at the application to today.
Anyway, the way Jesus talks about all of this to the Pharisees, according to Matthew, is this:
Episode 1: Matthew 9. This is when Jesus calls Matthew, the tax collector and then afterward has a meal with a bunch of tax collectors and "sinners" (unspecified). The Pharisees are somehow passing by and tsk-tsking about this, and actually voice their concern out loud.
Jesus hears them and says, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."
We know that Jesus is showing that He came to call sinners and since the Pharisees don't know that they're sinners, they'll be left out in the cold while Jesus calls the people who know that they are sinners, who will repent and serve Him.
True, but we should also contextualize this with the verse that comes next. We identify with the sinners, not the Pharisees, right? But should we? To what extent should Jesus' words hit squarely on our modern Evangelical hearts?
Jesus says, "Go and learn what this text means, "I require mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13, REB).
Ooooooh! How do we skip over that one to jump to his application of "I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners?" It's because, I think, that the part a of that verse is too uncomfortable for us. And too ambiguous. It requires work.
I mean, look at Jesus being such a...Teacher! "Go and learn what this text means..." He's giving a masterclass to the biggest names of the day in education in his day. He doesn't spell it out to them, but tells them to go study it and actually learn what Hosea (and David, and Isaiah) means!
I suspect we're under some cognitive dissonance about this---we feel the paradox between belief and behavior. We feel like we are not Pharisees but our behavior and avoidance of these kinds of topics betray us.
To what extent today do we also need to go back to our Bibles, listen to Jesus, and learn what that text means?
Well, like any good Teacher (and more than that, as the Expert and Master Teacher), Jesus uses repetition when the Pharisees show that they have not, in fact, learned this teaching. He's a little more direct this time.
Episode 2: Matthew 12 Now Jesus' hungry disciples are supposedly breaking the Sabbath by plucking ears of corn as they pass by corn fields. They must have been starving--if you map out Jesus's teachings and travels and remember that this is on a few years of time that He is in active ministry, you see that He is almost always on the move. A few days here, a few days there. Itinerant indeed. Tiredness and hunger must have been common companions for His disciples.
In this example, the Pharisees notice this (what, are they following Jesus and His disciples around everywhere they go, trying to do a "gotcha"? Yep, according to Scripture!) and say that this is breaking the Sabbath.
Most of us are familiar with Jesus' response, where He points to David who did more than break the Sabbath--he took consecrated bread right about of the tabernacle when his raucous soldiers were hungry. Jesus points out that priests break the Sabbath every single week, technically.
Jesus wraps up his teaching, with this reiteration of Hosea 6:6:
If you had known what this text means, "It is mercy I require, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:7-8).
Again, we often skip to the "Lord of the Sabbath" and don't reflect on what follows immediately before.
I actually just finished reading Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower. Could it be that, like the birds who pluck the seed that fell on the path, Satan just whisks this teaching right out of our minds? If Jesus repeated it twice in quick succession and it is one of the most significant themes, I'd argue, in the Bible, should we not pay attention?
Jesus the Teacher is telling the Pharisees that they failed the class. Between chapter 9 and chapter 12, they did not do what He said. They did not go and learn what He meant by desiring mercy rather than sacrifice. Rather, they dug in to their legalistic interpretation, setting up human guiderails and signposts for what it means to be Christian...I mean...Jewish...and completely ignored what Jesus was actually saying.
Why do I think this is one of the most significant themes of Scripture? When I was an undergrad at my Christian college, I had an amazing honors Bible professor who taught us that God gives His definition and description of Himself to Moses when He restates the Ten Commandments to Him, for the final version that Moses brings down from the mountain. This definition is repeated throughout Scripture many times. Here is the passage, in Exodus 34: 4-8:
So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped (emphasis mine, although it is the central teaching of this passage; NIV).
It says that God "proclaimed his name." As many Christians know, proclaiming one's name in the ancient Jewish world meant that you were sharing your essence--you're speaking to who you really are, your true self. This is what God is doing here, and He begins by saying that He is Gracious and Compassionate.
That is the God that we serve. He's leading with the most important part, the part that is so central to who He is that my buddy John will later say very succinctly, "God is love" (I John 4).
"Compassionate" in Exodus 34 is the English translation of the Hebrew word rahum. Love and grace and mercy are so closely aligned. As this Biblical Hebrew word study indicates (https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/r/r-ht-mfin.html), rahum means to "love deeply or to have mercy."
This particular word is used almost exclusively of God in Scripture (according to Strong's lexicon), in regard to His stance and approach to us humans.
Jesus, God incarnate on earth, is explicating this teaching further. It was already there in Scripture. David said it, preaching it to himself and to others. Isaiah wailed it. Hosea begged it of Israel, to try one more time.
God is full of grace and mercy. Even the consequences of punishments that come do not emanate from hatred and darkness, but from mercy. That's why mercy comes first in God's introduction. It's akin to good parenting. Any negative consequences that a good parent lets happen or causes to happen for a child come from love. If they don't, it's not loving discipline but vindictiveness. So, God is first and foremost and loving and compassionate Being.
And Jesus is teaching us that we ought to be, too.
If God is truly our Father, then we should allow ourselves to be taught by Him and act like Him. Jesus is telling us--let's be clear, so many of us Christians today are playing the role of the Pharisees, so let's just assume these words are for us today--"go and learn" what it means to desire mercy, not sacrifice. Do not condemn the innocent by what you think and feel is right--"know" what the text means to desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Jesus is spot-on regarding learning theory. By definition, learning has not happened unless it is retained and implemented. By their statements condemning the supposedly-Sabbath-breaking disciples, the Pharisees show that they have not learned, so Jesus just says it matter-of-factly.
How do we eradicate the Pharisaical spirit within us? How is it that history repeats itself so much--we are living out the same errors of the Israelites. Satan is so uncreative in taking a page from his own playbook over and over again.
During this pre-advent season, how can we prepare our hearts and listen to our Master Teacher? Let's open our ears and hear His initial lesson on this: "Go and learn what this text means, 'I require mercy, not sacrifice.' "
I think this requires some work on our part, since Jesus doesn't spell out how to learn this, either to the Pharisees or to us. We have the tools to learn--the Scriptures, direct instruction from the Lord via prayer, wise counsel from others. Will we take advantage of these means of grace...to learn grace?
I'll end with a song again, this time from Selah: Wonderful Merciful Savior: https://youtu.be/fK6sYVQCqhs?si=13KCYJmbfSzPgZ5Z