They didn't get it!
Matt. 12:1 ¶ 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.
Matt. 12:2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.”
Matt. 12:3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?
Matt. 12:4 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.
Matt. 12:5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?
Matt. 12:6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
Matt. 12:7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
Matt. 12:8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
In yesterday's reading Jesus was trying to teach the religious leaders that they needed to take seriously the scriptures that they would have memorized. He quoted to them Hosea 6:6. Surely some time had passed between Matthew chapter 9 and now the incident in chapter 12, but Jesus brings up the same verse again and this time emphasizing the fact that they obviously did not know and/or understand what the verse really meant. Or, maybe they did know what it meant but they chose to ignore it, picking and choosing which parts of the scriptures they wanted to emphasize in their own personal lives. Somehow it was so much easier to stick to the hard and fast, black and white rules than to get into that messy territory of figuring out what may have really been meant by showing mercy.
God's goal for humanity is that we become reflections of the Son, reflecting his nature to the whole world, and his nature is holy love. This holiness of Christ is to be our goal in all that we do here on this earth, and that is why Hosea had reminded the Israelites in the Old Testament and now Jesus is reminding the religious folks that mercy always comes before sacrifice, because mercy is a reflection of the character of God. However, we can be like the religious folks getting hung up on the black and white of the rules and somehow missing God's real intended purpose. No, even when given the chance they didn't get it. What about us -- do we really truly get it?
It is messy and uncomfortable to realize that everything related to our Christian life isn't always neat and tidy and tied up in a box. Instead, we are given a mind and God asks us to use it so that we can have a real impact on the world around us -- having mercy, instead of sacrifice! One area in which Christianity has expended a great deal of energy is in trying to prove the literalness of certain parts of scripture. The religious folks of Jesus' day would have been right on this one, for they believed that their purpose was to protect the "truth" of the scriptures and tradition. However, Jesus' reuse of this scripture makes us realize that they were not understanding that what Jesus had to offer was a leaving and breathing faith that moved beyond the rigid boundaries of the restrictions which they had personally created. Their own interpretations of the scriptures created a situation in which the true nature or character of God could not be revealed in their lives.
We might be surprised to discover that when the United States was arguing over slavery there were "good" Christians who used scriptures very literally to argue in favor of slavery. Today we might be appalled at that thought but while we think it's appalling, we may still be doing the same thing but simply with new and/or different arguments. Jesus said that we were to get over it -- and to understand the underlying purpose of the law. Clarke in his commentary provides us with four ways in which to understand when laws should be superseded:
1) When it is required by the natural law of necessity. What happened at this point and time? It was the Sabbath but the disciples were starved. They had no food and Jewish law did allow for you to walk through someone's field and to pick grain by hand (as long as you didn't use a sickle). The necessity of the day was that they were hungry! These men needed to eat and therefore in this case it wasn't work, but the sticklers of the law saw it this way. They would have preferred that the disciples went hungry, rather than to get food from the field. Jesus said they were to have understood that mercy came first!
2) If there is another law which is superior, the other law is overridden. Which law is superior to all? Love God and love neighbor. Therefore, the very purpose of God for mankind, to be a reflection of his image to the world supersedes all laws. What would a loving Father have done for his hungry children? Would he have made them starve and wait for another day? Never! He would have fed them.
3) There is a law of charity and mercy. This is what was indicated by the scripture from Hosea. God's desire is for mercy and not for sacrifice. The law of mercy says that love always trumps rigid rules and sacrifices.
4) Laws are also superseded when the one giving the new and/or different law has authority to do so. Jesus Christ had the authority to say what could happen on the Sabbath. He had power and authority from his Father -- only the religious leaders didn't want to see it or believe it, and therefore were always there, quick to judge everything that he did.
It's a question of the purpose of the Sabbath -- for whom or what was it created? The Sabbath was created for mercy, and a law should never be used to contradict it's very purpose. However, the religious people still didn't get it. They clung to their traditions and their defense of the scriptures and in the meantime they allowed the sick, the needy, the poor, and those who needed a touch from God to suffer around them. If we think that we have to be defenders of the letter of the law then somehow we don't believe in God's power which has made his word enduring for thousands of years! Instead, we need to focus on being the merciful people of God that he intended for us to be.
We have been given many chances just like the religious folks of Jesus' day. My prayer on this Thanksgiving Day is that we truly do "get" it and that we embrace sacrifice and reach out and love our world in the way in which Jesus would have wanted.
Lord, I am so thankful today for your mercy. May I be an agent of your mercy to the world. Amen.