At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But 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 was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And 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.” (Matthew 12:1-8, ESV)
What is the point of this exchange? Was Jesus intending to say, “You shouldn’t judge people for breaking the Law because that’s the merciful attitude”? Was He intending to condone the breaking of the Law as a norm on the basis that it’s merciful to allow it?
The short answer is, “No.” The point of this passage was not to say that breaking the Law was really okay after all. Then what is the point? Notice:
1. David did what was unlawful and you (the Pharisees) do not condemn him or the priests.
2. The disciples did not break the Law but you condemn them.
The Pharisees were hypocrites in that they cherry-picked what they allowed and what they condemned. They excused the guilty and condemned the innocent. By doing this, they themselves were not being faithful to the covenant. It’s really the same issue that Jesus raised in Matthew 7 and Paul raised in Romans 1-2. Judging others mercilessly, especially when they aren’t guilty, means merciless judgment for the judges.
That seems simple enough, but what about the quote, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”? Why bring this into it? Is this to say that sometimes it is merciful to understand the breaking of the Law? I doubt that anyone, in extreme circumstances, would argue that one shouldn’t have run a red light going to the hospital in order to save a life. Paramedics do it and are guiltless. No one, with any common sense, will say that the “shut-in” or the sick are neglecting the assemblies. If to save David’s life as he was on the run from Saul, the priest gave him bread that normally would not have been allowed for profane consumption, then perhaps we can understand that as an abnormal situation. Even so, that’s not really the point of bringing in this passage, and this would not be justification for turning an exception, if that’s what it really was, into a rule. After all, Jesus brought up the situation with David because of the fact that David was technically guilty and did what was unlawful—the force of Jesus’ argument hinges on the guilt of David—and because the Pharisees did not condemn David under those circumstances. Meanwhile, they were condemning innocent disciples. They were merciless hypocrites in their judgment. That’s the issue.
The use of this quote by Jesus served as a scathing rebuke. Interestingly, the judgment Jesus issues against the Pharisees here was not merciful. Why? Because they weren’t merciful to the guiltless, and those who show no mercy should expect no mercy from God. When we see the point of Hosea 6 being applied to the Pharisees here, we can see that Jesus’ judgment was hard and to the point.
Hosea 6 is the context, so let’s go back to that for a moment. Bear in mind that Hosea’s message was predicated on the names given to the children born to Hosea’s adulteress wife. Among these are names that mean “God sows,” “no mercy,” and “not my people.” The names symbolized the unfaithfulness of the people and the judgment that God would soon bring upon them (chapter 1). God levels a series of accusations against Israel, stating, “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land” (4:1). Because of this lack of knowledge, they were destroyed and God would reject them (v. 6).
With judgment pronounced, and an appeal to return to the Lord, God asks,
“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 (mercy, LXX) and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (6:4-6)
While Judah would see more blessings, Israel (Ephraim) would soon be scattered. For those who should have known better, their end is pitiful and sad because:
“In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled.” (6:10)
The condemnation of Israel is strong and swift. There would be no more mercy shown. Now think about Jesus’ use of this passage in His discussion with the Pharisees. By saying, “If you had known what this means…,” He puts the Pharisees into the same category as Israel just before their judgment came in full force. He indicates that they had the same lack of knowledge that destroyed Israel in Hosea’s day, and they, too, would be rejected. This was a lack of knowledge of God, and they had come to place ritual over true knowledge and steadfast love. God didn’t want sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, with no real sense of walking with Him. He wanted their faithfulness, not their ritual. One may well compare Micah 6:8 and that surrounding context.
Jesus’ quoting of Hosea 6 wasn’t meant as a catch-all way of saying that it’s okay to break the Law. It was meant as a most serious rebuke against those who had no real knowledge of God, which was demonstrated by their hypocritical condemnation of the innocent. As in Hosea’s day, they would soon be facing judgment themselves, and it would be without mercy. They had been defiled. They were putting their own commandments and traditions above God’s, and those who didn’t have a true knowledge of God were in no position to judge the disciples of Jesus.
First, we need to be merciful. In this context, we do this by being careful of the types of judgments we render. This works with Jesus’ same point in Matthew 7. This is not a matter of never making any judgments, but rather judging with mercy and understanding that “the measure you use…will be measured to you” (v. 2). If we are not careful, we may be judging the innocent as guilty. At that point, we will be judged by God as guilty.
Second, coincident with the first, we need to learn how to give the benefit of the doubt. This is what love requires (1 Cor 13:7). Perhaps there is a difficult situation of which we are not aware. How shall we feel if we judge a brother for neglecting God’s people only to find that he was in a serious accident or couldn’t get out or communicate with us? Our first reaction should never be, “How awful that he is being unfaithful!” Our reaction ought to be one of love and concern, carefully applying the efforts to see how we can help.
Third, never should we plan to violate God’s expressed will. Jesus did not bring up David and the bread in order to say, “It’s okay to violate God’s law.” This is not an excuse to be guilty, nor is it meant to give comfort to the idea that breaking God’s law is not really a problem.
Fourth, God wants our steadfast love and faithfulness, not our mere ritual. This is not to say that He doesn’t want us to act in certain ways, but Scripture throughout is clear on the fact that ritual without heart is never acceptable to God. The prophets scathingly rebuked Israel for thinking that the sacrifices were good enough, though they kept right on doing what they wanted. Isaiah said they were guilty of trampling the courts of God (Isa 1).
Likewise, let us never think that it’s the ritual that makes us right in itself. Going through the motions of taking the Lord’s Supper, for example, will mean nothing if we aren’t personally committed to being faithful in our lives to God. Remembering the sacrifice of Jesus won’t help if we aren’t living sacrifices ourselves (Rom 12:1-2).
Finally, let us reflect on the words of Jesus at the conclusion of this episode: “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus performed many miracles on the Sabbath, which greatly aggravated His detractors. They often accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. In reality, the Sabbath was never put in place to restrict the power of God or to place unreasonable restrictions on men. Jesus demonstrated the true meaning of the Sabbath through His miracles and teachings. It was about true rest and freedom from sin. It was the release of captivity, and Jesus is Lord of it all. He owns the Sabbath, and He fulfilled its true meaning and purpose. Never forget that He owns our lives as well.