“1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 Jesus replied, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for them to eat, but only for the priests.
5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 But I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
7 If only you had known the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:1-8).
It appears that Jesus’ disciples were breaking God’s commandment (cf. Exodus 20:8-11), so why did he defend them from the Pharisees (v. 3-8)? What is the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (v.7)? Why does God desire love and knowledge of Him instead of burnt offerings (cf. Hosea 6:6)?
The key to answering the above questions is found in the words of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Love for God was the number-one priority for the people of Israel. The whole Law, including the offerings and sacrifices, was to serve as an expression of this love for the Lord.
However, over time the Israelites began to worship other gods while continuing the ritual of the sacrifices. They “obeyed the Law,” yet they did not display love toward God, and they did not truly know Him. Hosea’s message was a response to Israel’s hypocrisy. God desired their love over external practices of piety. He longed for His people to long for Him rather than simply continue a religious tradition.
Scripture often notes that sacrifices to God are incomplete and even offensive without a changed heart that loves and knows the Lord. First Samuel 15:22 says, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (See also Isaiah 1:11-17; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 7:21-23.) The same is said of other religious rituals, such as circumcision (Romans 2:28-29).
Jesus would later use Hosea’s teaching against the hypocritical Pharisees, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13; cf. 12:7). Without a loving relationship with God, all the ritual in the world couldn’t help the Pharisees.
With the coming of Jesus Christ, the Law was fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). However, the principle of Hosea 6:6 is still relevant. Many religious people participate in Christian rituals, yet their hearts do not love God and seek to know Him. Those who practice empty ritual should heed Hosea’s words. God cares more about our heart’s love for Him than the things that we do in His name. We must not substitute religious traditions for a relationship with God. May we never be like those whom Jesus described: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).
The teachers or interpreters of the Law had failed to catch the meaning of the simplest utterances of the prophets. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” moral and not positive duties, these made up the true life of religion, and were alone acceptable to God. It was because they had inverted the right relation of the two that they had, in this instance, condemned those whom our Lord now declares to have been in this respect absolutely guiltless.
When St. Spyridion was about eighty years old, it happened that a traveller came to visit him at one of those periods of the year when it was his custom to fast on alternate days. Seeing that the stranger was very tired, Spyridion told his daughter to wash his feet, and set meat before him. She replied, that as it was fast-time, there was neither bread nor meat ready. On which Spyridion, having prayed and asked forgiveness, desired her to cook some salt pork there chanced to be in the house. When it was prepared, he sat down at table with the stranger, partook of the meat, and told him to follow his example. But the stranger declined, saying he was a Christian, and ought not to eat meat during the great fast. Spyridion answered, “It is for that very reason you ought not to refuse to partake of the food; unto the pure all things are pure.”
In the case of St. Spyridion, it was out of care and concern for the stranger that he offered him meat during the great fast and ate with him. His answer to the stranger is taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus, Chapter 1, verse 15: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled”. The apostle Paul having made mention of Jewish fables, and the traditions of the elders, takes notice of some darling notions, that these judaizing Christians had imbibed or retained; that there were some things, which being touched, or handled, or tasted, occasioned uncleanness, and which the apostle denies to them that are “pure”; by whom are meant, not such who are so in their own eyes, who yet may not be cleansed from their filthiness; nor do any become pure through ceremonial, moral, or evangelical performances, done by them; they are only pure, who are justified from all sin by Christ’s righteousness, and are clean through the word or sentence of absolution spoken by him; and who are washed from their sins in his blood, and have that sprinkled upon their consciences, by which they are purged and cleansed from all sin; and who have the clean water of sanctifying grace sprinkled upon them, and have clean hearts, and right spirits created in them; and whose hearts are purified by faith, and have true principles of grace and holiness formed in them; whose graces are pure and genuine, their faith is unfeigned, their love is without dissimulation, and their hope without hypocrisy; and who, in consequence of all this, love pureness of heart, speak the pure language of Canaan, hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience, and follow after purity of life and conversation: to these “all things are pure”; whatever they touch, or handle, or eat, nothing can defile them; for it is not what enters into man that can pollute him; nor is any creature unclean of itself, but good, and to be received with thanksgiving (cf. Matthew 15:11).
Let us reconcile ourselves with the Lord with the song “Hosea – Come Back to me”: