As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13

God desires that we have intimate knowledge of him and a faithful love toward him and others rather than religious activity on our part. Twice in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes this passage from Hosea 6:6. Jesus’ command to the Pharisees was, “Go and learn what this means,” and then quotes Hosea 6:6a, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). So, it makes sense to me that we should take the hint and make sure we also know what this means since Jesus was obviously not happy that these Pharisees did not comprehend its meaning.

Let’s look at the original context in Hosea.

“Come, let us return to the Lord;
    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will raise us up,
    that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
    his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
    as the spring rains that water the earth.”

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
    I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:1-6

A simple first reading of verses 1-3 indicates a people who have a heart for God and a genuine desire for his presence. However, in verses 4-6, we get God’s response to his people. He doesn’t see it that way, and of course, we shouldn’t either. God has a history with these folks, and he knows their character like no one else. He likens their love for him to a morning cloud or morning dew; both go away pretty quickly as the sun rises. They are fickle people whose love is not steadfast and faithful toward God. They are simply hurting and want God’s help, so they say, “Let’s be religious, and God will get us out of this slump.” Not gonna happen! God has sent prophets whom they ignored, so now it is time for judgment. It is in the context that God says,

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

This is written in the form of Hebrew poetry. One characteristic of Hebrew poetry is what is referred to as parallelism. Two lines of poetry say much the same thing, but they complement one another and increase understanding. In this verse, the parallel terms are “steadfast love” which is parallel to “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is parallel to burnt offerings. The easiest to explain is the parallelism of sacrifice and burnt offerings. These are both overt religious activities that anyone can observe, regardless of their heart condition. They may or may not love God and may or may not know him intimately. To obey, they just have to make an offering.

When combined with the requirements of “steadfast love” and “knowledge of God,” faithful obedience cannot be enacted by just anybody.

The Hebrew word translated “steadfast love” is one of my favorite Hebrew words, HESED. There are several translations of the word. Some of those words are kindness, mercy, lovingkindness, loyalty, love, and unfailing love. It is often associated with covenant relations but is the motivating force of covenant faithfulness, not the result of covenant obligations. When the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, was translated from Hebrew In this passage, HESED was translated as mercy, so Jesus quotes it as, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

Combining “steadfast love” and “knowledge of God” to arrive at the meaning intended by Hosea, we arrive at an intimate loving knowledge of God. These are the thoughts carried forward in Jesus’ quotes in Matthew when he uses the word mercy. Jesus is saying he prefers that we have an intimate loving relationship with God and our fellow man rather than needing sacrifices that are nothing more than religious ceremonies that are bereft of the love of God or man.

Let’s go back to the context in which Jesus quotes Hosea twice. First, in Matthew 9, Jesus is dining with a group of tax collectors and sinners (quite possibly some prostitutes in the crowd). Pharisees, men who had tremendous knowledge of the law of God and a tremendous grasp on all the extra rules men had created to make sure people wouldn’t break the law, were observing Jesus with these tax collectors and sinners. Rather than rejoicing that Jesus would express God’s love to those who need it so badly, they criticize him for associating with these undesirables.

The next episode was with, you guessed it, the Pharisees. Again, it was a situation of rules over love. Jesus had been walking with his disciples, and at this particular part of the journey, they were walking through a grain field. His disciples were hungry, so they plucked a few heads of grain and rubbed them in their palms to get to the grain and eat it. The Pharisees’ reaction was to point out that they were doing something forbidden in the law. Why would they do that?

Jesus had to remind them of the story of David and his men who ate the holy shewbread from before the ark of God, something that was unlawful, but he did it anyway with God’s apparent blessing. For David and his men, the need for food was of higher priority than obedience to the ceremonial law.

So what is the message for us today? Many people are spiritually sick and in need of a physician. Our priority is to manifest God’s steadfast love or mercy rather than be concerned over religious scruples. God had to speak to the same thing through Isaiah in Isaiah 58, the chapter on fasting. God makes it clear that he is not satisfied with a ceremony for ceremony’s sake but wants a fast like this:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Isaiah 58:6-7

The concern is not with impressing God with how holy we are, but with reaching out to those who need God’s steadfast love and mercy and seeing to it that their needs are met. That may mean that we hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes or other non-religious types. God loves that kind of conduct and promises that our light will break out when we love that way (Isaiah 58:8).

Jesus wrapped the idea up in a straightforward statement.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40

All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two statements, love God and love your neighbor. This is the essence of what Jesus was trying to get across to the Pharisees when he told them to learn what it means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

The question for us is, are we loving both God and our neighbors, or are we worried about being sufficiently holy and religious? That is an excellent question to ask, and be sure we get an answer from the Holy Spirit regarding our condition. Being “religious” and “holy” can keep us from pleasing God, the very thing we are concerned about.