At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smouldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’
The stakes in today’s story appear laughably low. Not for the man who found healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath, of course. But what’s the ground of the dispute between the disciples of Jesus and the Pharisees? A couple of heads of grain! And to these the Pharisees objected, not because the disciples were helping themselves to a few kernels of someone else’s crop, but because they were doing it on the Sabbath day. Modern incredulity and exasperation might drive us simply to dismiss the Pharisees. “Really? A little grain plucking on a Saturday morning gets you boys this worked up?” We might pass over this entire passage as a quaint, rather annoying reminder of the strange fussiness of a (mercifully) long-departed time.
But Jesus, by quoting the words of the Prophet Hosea, will not permit us to be so hasty to judgment. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Those words have an application far beyond the situation we read about today. Those words invite us to contemplate two paths, two roads, two ways of being. And if we remember just who it is who says “I desire,” then those words cease to be an invitation only, and become a command as well.
On the one hand, we have sacrifice. Sacrifice is clear-cut, straightforward, and objective. For ancient Jews, the unchanging rules of sacrifice were set down in the sacred texts, administered by a caste of priests, and regulated by the unwavering rhythms of the sun in the sky and the seasons of the earth. Sacrifice is clean (in a manner of speaking) and easy. Without knowing the individual offering the sacrifice, the person performing the sacrifice, or even the specific reasons behind the sacrifice, an outside observer could still determine whether the sacrifice had been done correctly: whether the rules had been followed—whether the sacrifice “counted.”
In his quotation today, Jesus applies that term “sacrifice,” to the whole system of the Pharisees. It is a just and a fair comparison. As hard as it can be for us to realize, part of what the Pharisees sought to do was actually to make the keeping of the Law easier. By “building a fence around the Law”—piling up their own traditions and observances and rules and regulations around the core of Moses’s commandments—the Pharisees sought to ensure that every faithful Jew could fulfill his or her religious duty. The Pharisees were trying to make every aspect of Jewish life just as clear-cut, straightforward, and objective as making a sacrifice was. Thus their obsession with each jot and tittle of the Law—with all the ins-and-outs and odds-and-ends of every command, every injunction.
We do not take part in ritual sacrifices anymore. Neither do we go in for a strict and unwavering observance of the Mosaic Law. But we are, nevertheless, as susceptible to a Pharisaical approach to the life of faith as the Pharisees themselves were. We want rules. We want things to be clear-cut, straightforward, and objective. Most especially in this season of Lent, we want to know that we can advance in our spiritual lives according to certain measurable criteria. “So many hours of Bible reading a day will make me this much holier, right?” “So many dollars given to charity (or church) will make me this much more generous, won’t it?” “So many mornings spent in silent meditation, eagerly contemplating the Higher Things, will make me this much more enlightened, yes?” These ways of thinking come naturally to us. They are all elements of the sacrificial approach that have broad appeal, especially in a results-oriented, time-compressed, highly-driven, “spiritual-but-not-religious” culture such as ours.
But over and against all this thinking stands mercy. Mercy is messy. Mercy is tricky. Mercy is painfully, profoundly subjective. Mercy’s outcomes cannot be measured. Mercy’s commands cannot be standardized. The mercy to which I am called in my daily walk may look nothing like the mercy our Lord sets before you. The mercy that God invites me to extend in my family may be worlds apart from the mercy he calls for from a single person. Mercy requires intimacy: intimacy with those who need and ask for our mercy, and most importantly intimacy with the Lord who commands it.
And here at last is the critical distinction between sacrifice and mercy. Sacrifice is a set of apparently external criteria—an ostensibly objective way of thinking—that actually bubbles up from somewhere deep within us. We are, by nature, very good at sacrifice—good at nit-picking; good at following the letter but not the spirit; good at finding out the faults of others and screwing them to the sticking point—all the while hoping that no one ever treats our own faults in the same way.
But mercy is different. Though it comes from within us, mercy does not begin within us. Mercy is a flower that blossoms deep in our souls, but the seed of that flower comes from beyond ourselves. Mercy is the planting of the Lord. Our capacity to show mercy—to enter into the messy details of another person’s pain; to strive and struggle to understand where other people are coming from, or what drives them to do what they do; to yield up the rights we might legitimately claim, all for the salvation of another or for the good of the whole—this blessed capacity can only flow out of the mercy we have received, the mercy that has been engrafted into our hearts.
Because Christ Jesus has entered into the messy details of our pain; because he has striven and struggled in human flesh, and through a human life; because he yielded up the rights that he might have claimed as God, and chose to die a miserable sinner’s death for miserable sinners’ sakes; because God in Christ has shown us mercy, so now we can—we must—be merciful.
“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” And hear again the promise of our Lord Jesus from just a few chapters ago: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”