On the day that Jesus called Matthew to be one of His disciples, he also dined with many tax collectors and sinners. In that time, tax collectors were especially notorious, because they would tax on behalf of Rome and even overtax, skimming off the top. Yet Jesus ate with them. The Pharisees, seeing this, questioned Jesus’s disciples about His “reprehensible” actions.
The Savior spoke for Himself. He said to them that those who are well don’t have a need for a doctor, but those who are sick. And then he said,
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
This phrase, go and learn, was a common rabbinical formula that a teacher would use to instruct his students to study a text from the Hebrew Bible. While the Pharisees didn’t acknowledge His authority, He nonetheless is their Master and Teacher. It was probably biting to them to hear that phrase from Him, themselves being thought of as the learned scholars of their day. But it was a rebuke well-deserved.
The Savior pointed them to Hosea 6:6, and He quoted, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. Sacrifice, here, is representative of the outward expression of religion in general, whether offering up sacrifices at the temple, or tithing, or fasting, or praying in public–the things in which the Pharisees took great pride.
Mercy, on the other hand, refers to a loving compassion, which is what should have accompanied their sacrifice. If the Pharisees had mercy, they would have understood why Jesus ate with sinners, and they would have joined in themselves.
He went on to explain how Hosea 6:6 is related to what He’s doing: For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. The word righteous here may have been said with godly sarcasm. Jesus didn’t come to call the “righteous”, or those who were righteous in their own sight, but sinners, those who realized their dire need for a Savior.
What this reminds us today is that Jesus takes no pleasure in religious rituals for their own sake. We are not righteous because we go to church several times a week. We are not righteous because we tithe. We are not righteous because we go to Bible study. Note, that all of these can be good, if done with a worshipful heart. But done for the sake of Pharisaical self-righteousness, the Lord doesn’t desire them.
What the Lord desires is true worship. That’s what is represented here in mercy. Someone who has mercy for others in the standard that the Savior is talking about is one who fears God and bows before Him. It’s not the outward acts that are supreme, but the heart, which then manifests itself in truly righteous acts and real sacrifice.
So, let us not be obsessed with ritual. Have rituals, yes, but let’s not do them for their own sake. Instead, let’s examine our hearts and worship Him in all things.