“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”

In the ninth chapter of Matthew, Jesus seems to have gotten really fed up with people asking him why he eats with publicans and sinners. Here’s how we can tell. After he gives his standard answer to the question, he gives the guys who asked it a reading assignment:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matt 9:10-13, KJV)

The passage that Jesus tells the Pharisees to look up occurs in Hosea 6:6: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” But he doesn’t just tell them to read it. He tells them to understand it. And he does this to answer the question, “why do you hang around sinners?” To interpret the passage correctly, we must try to understand how Jesus’s answer answers this question.

The quotation from Hosea here is particularly poignant when talking about sinners, especially when the sinning involves sex, as it frequently did when Jesus was criticized for associating with prostitutes and other known naughty people. Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute at the beginning of his ministry, and his wife, Gomer, served as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness. As a prophet, Hosea criticizes his people harshly, not for forgetting to sacrifice to God, but for thinking that performing sacrifices made them good people when they lacked any concern or compassion for the less fortunate members of their own society. Even in the 8th century BCE, God was more interested in human kindness than in dead livestock.

We can learn some important things by looking at the original languages. The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “mercy” in Hoseah 6:6 (חֶ֥סֶד) might also be translated as “kindness,” “lovingkindness,” “goodness,” or “compassion.” It occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible to refer to both God’s compassion for human beings and people’s kind treatment of each other. The Greek term that Matthew uses (ἐλεός) has a similar range of meanings. It is, for example, the same word that Luke uses to describe the way that the Good Samaritan treats the injured traveler. (Luke 10:37)

But what does Jesus mean by “sacrifice” in this passage? Appeals to original languages don’t help much here, since both Hosea and Matthew are clearly talking about the religious ritual in which animals are killed in the name of God. But Jesus has to be speaking metaphorically. Nothing in this passage has anything to do with animal sacrifices. They are not in the temple, not performing ordinances, and not killing animals.

But they are following their religious law as they understand it by refusing to eat with those guilty of what they consider serious sins. Like most people in most times, they had divided their world into “good people” and “bad people,” and they thought they were being religious by refusing to associate with the “bad people.” This religious principle, they felt, was more important than the principles of compassion and unconditional love.

While Jesus is having these conversations with the Pharisees and with his own disciples in Matthew’s narrative, something happens that makes his point better than words ever could. He is approached by a woman “with an issue of blood”:

And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour. (Matthew 9:20-22, also Mark 5:25-34and Luke 8:43-48)

The woman with an issue of blood is a perfect test case for the very argument that Jesus has been making. Under Mosaic Law at the time, menstruating women were considered ritually unclean. Furthermore, anything, or anyone that such a woman touched was also made ritually unclean. Women could not participate in religious ceremonies until their bleeding had stopped for at least seven days. But the woman who approached Jesus had been bleeding for twelve years—and was therefore in a status of permanent uncleanliness. Nobody could touch her, or anything she touched, and remain able to participate in religious ordinances. Showing compassion to this woman would literally render a person unable to offer a sacrifice. This, of course, is exactly the choice between “mercy” and “sacrifice” that Jesus had just told his questioners to “go and learn what this means.”

One could argue that we don’t have to touch people to have compassion for them. We can show our love at a distance, without letting ourselves be contaminated by their uncleanliness, right? I’m sure that some people in the audience felt that they were showing great love to the woman by keeping her away from social gatherings and religious ceremonies that could only make her uncomfortable. One could argue these things, but one would be wrong. This too is Jesus’s point. We cannot love people at arm’s length. Loving people means inviting them into our homes and our lives, sharing meals with them, going into their homes, and embracing them as children of God. Anything else is just social policy.

We will miss the point of this powerful episode if we see it in terms of ancient purity laws and religious rituals. Jesus addresses an audience whose religion makes them extremely uncomfortable around certain kinds of people, and he tells them that having compassion for people is more important than feeling comfortable—even if their discomfort comes from their religious beliefs. The text invites us to consider what kind of people might make us uncomfortable, religiously or otherwise, because those are the people we most need to love.

In the Kingdom of God, there can be no conflict between the two Great Commandments, to love God and to love others as ourselves. Loving others is how we love God. God wants our compassion more than our tokens of religious devotion. The great Catholic humanitarian Dorothy Day perhaps put it best when she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person that I love the least.”


  1. BHodges says:

    Thanks, Michael.

  2. Great post and thoughts. Thanks you

  3. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    My husband and I have been watching “The Chosen”, a marvelous TV series about the life and teachings of Christ, which has greatly deepened our love for and commitment to the Savior. In Season 3 Episodes 4&5 which are titled “Clean” they tell the story about the woman who had the 12 year long menstrual disorder which rendered her “unclean” and therefore beyond the pale for the entire Jewish community. It’s one thing to read the story in the NT and a totally different thing to see just what this poor woman actually had to deal with in terms of being rejected outright because of something that she had no control over. Her family and the community refused to have anything to do with her. In order just to survive she either had to hide or move from town to town when her disorder was discovered. Can you imagine how soul destroying this must’ve been? Most women will appreciate what she must’ve suffered physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. My husband and my brother who first introduced me to “The Chosen” both commented that until those two episodes they’d never really understood the full background of this particular story because they’re men.

    Jesus could’ve just as easily have joined in with the religious leaders and the community in rejecting the woman and adding to her deep misery. But He didn’t. Even though she just barely touched the bottom of His clothes in an act of supreme faith she was healed. What must that have felt like for both her and Jesus? In spite of the extremely crowded conditions He discerned the depth of the woman’s incredible faith and physically felt His healing power leave His body to reach out and make her whole. Scripture says that the people who were part of the crowd were all but speechless after witnessing this miracle. This changed the woman’s life in every possible manner for the better.

    Jesus didn’t wait to heal this woman until He’d assessed her “worthiness” nor did He give her a reminder afterward to rigorously follow the multitudinous rules that orthodox Jews of the time were taught to obey completely, rules that were considered to be 100% “necessary” and non negotiable in order to be considered in good standing with the church leaders and their synagogue. Too often in the church, and as church members, then and now, we put up all sorts of unnecessary and, sometimes, completely wrong types of barriers between us and those who desperately need our help, our love and our support in order to overcome their challenges. Jesus’s love is prodigal and all encompassing. He wasn’t afraid to reach out to love and heal (in all ways) people who were thought by the religious leaders and community to be thoroughly unworthy of help, love and healing.

    Growing up here in Utah the prevailing attitude was (and often still is) that as church members we were to only associate with “our own”. This would keep us free from the taint of those who live in “the world”. (I completely loathe hearing about how evil “the world” is in talks and lessons!) This is the 180 degree opposite of what Jesus has taught us. As a teen I discovered just how limiting this attitude was and vowed that I would try to reach out to others who were considered to be “unsuitable” to associate with according to the prevailing Mormon culture. Sometimes it was so difficult to do. I taught school at what was known as “Gangbanger and Abused Child” Elementary School. Every day gave me an opportunity to try to follow Jesus’s supreme example, sometimes not so successfully, of learning to care for the children, parents and coworkers who were the most difficult individuals of all. Once I gave up my “right” to keep “undesirable”, “sinful” and “unworthy” people at arms’ length I felt God give me the desire and ability to reach out. The upshot was that I learned to love the unlovable, to see them as people deserving of my respect (the vast majority of the time) and to see the good in them, no matter how deeply hidden it could be. My life has been greatly blessed and enriched as a result of trying to see all people as our Heavenly Parents and Jesus see each one of us rather than shutting them out for fear of being tainted by associating with them.

  4. Thank you for this much-needed recentering.

    Eating with publicans and sinners. Eating with those who are against eating with publicans and sinners.

  5. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    Oops, I typed in prodigious but spellcheck changed it to prodigal instead.

  6. Thank you for this. Truly inspiring.

    I may add that this principle of “mercy, not sacrifice” should also be understood as a way to accept the “unholiness” of others in their desire to aproach to Christ dispite their sins o whatever. We requiere investigators to be clean and practicing church law even before baptism. This cleanliness is requiered to serve in the kingdom, to get marry in the temple or to perform vicariously. Even to take the sacrament we were told to be clean first. And I don´t think we are helping those with honest desires to serve and get close to the Lord though ordinances if we prioritize sacrifice over mercy.

    Jesuschrist is not only the example to follow by individuals, but to the church too. There a a lot of good, struggling people that can do a lot for Christ kingdom, if the church will simple allow more mercy and less sacrifice.

  7. Awesome post.

  8. I think the biggest challenge might be to not put the cart before the horse–so to speak. Sacrifice is essential–but mercy comes first.

    The account of the Savior’s visit to the Nephites explicitly demonstrates the proper order of things. The Lord of the universe condescends to visit a broken people. But before he requires of them anything beyond (perhaps) a willingness to believe he removes the burden of the old law and heals them of all physical maladies. And then he edifies them with an infusion of the powers of heaven–which has the effect of healing their wounded souls. All of the *before* they enter the waters of baptism–signifying their sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

  9. “Loving people means inviting them into our homes and our lives, sharing meals with them, going into their homes, and embracing them as children of God. Anything else is just social policy.”
    I really like that post, Michael – I used to see a number of “Hate Not Welcome Here” signs on the yards of my neighbors and I found myself wondering how many actually were welcome there in any case, and if we don’t learn to welcome haters, we will probably find ourselves at a small, lonely table.

    I am often also struck by what I call “Commandment Zero” – the passage in Mark 12 where Christ states the Shema – the ultimate Jewish prayer – “Hear, O Israel – The Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One” before reciting the Great Commandments. In Hebrew, “Hear” is the same word as “Obey”. What do you make of that? Why do you think Christ prefaces the Great Commandments with the Shema?

  10. Poor Wayfaring Stranger
    Wonderfully written and expressed. I have long wrestled with how we reconcile our modern concept of worthiness with what seems, so plainly, to be happening during Jesus’ ministry. Namely, the woman with the issue of blood is just one case of dozens where this same principle bears itself out.

    Is not our requiring a prior cleansing (wothiness) the equivalent to the Jewish tradition demanding that this woman be cleansed “first”? before she is worthy to approach Jesus? Their cultural law assumes that her uncleanliness will steal away the virtue held by the supposed righteous, or in this case, Jesus himself. Jesus proves the exact opposite is trues His virtue, strength and healing power has the power to overcome her uncleanliness. Why then would we not assume that the Sacrament is the equivalent to touching the hem of Jesus’ robe?

    The Sacrament is not a prize to be won, it’s an invitation to be part of the body of Christ, it’s something to be received. And our capacity to become like him is predicated on our receiving his Grace. We don’t invite people to this sacred communal meal because they have risen to some arbitrary level of personal purity. Performed in this way, our Sunday ritual becomes more a way to signify to fellow saints the story we want them to believe about us. It’s a story that projects the parts of me that are worthy of praise and obsesses and suppresses the weakness that contains the greatest sealing power.

    If partaking of the Sacrament begins with the idea that I am good, then the whole ordinance carry’s the danger of using it to signify our own worthiness to one another. In short, we have already lost the infinite nature of Christ’s sacrifice by reducing it to a medicine only available to those who first prove they are worthy. This is backwards, and furthermore obscures our focus during the sacrament, centering it first on fixing my flaws as a way to deserve his infinite love. Additionally, if I am consumed with my own flaws and sins, what is stopping me from fixating on the darkness in others?

    We invite them because we love them, and we have agreed, by way of covenant, to share life’s weakness, to bare each other’s imperfections, and to care for even the least of these.

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