Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

To begin, consider the Gospel account where Jesus and his disciples were walking through grain fields on the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day of rest (Matthew 12:1-8). The disciples picked heads of grain and ate them, and the religious Pharisees accused them of violating the Sabbath by doing work. Technically, the Pharisees were right. The law of Moses forbade doing any work on that day – on punishment of death! In fact, when Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness and God rained down bread (or manna) each day as food, the Lord instructed the people to gather two days worth on the day before the Sabbath, so they would not have to do any work by even gathering food (Exodus 16). But this is exactly what Jesus’ disciples were doing.

Jesus responded to the accusation by saying the disciples were innocent, but he did not claim that they were not breaking the rule. It seems like a contradiction. Jesus cited a couple of situations in the Old Testament where people technically broke laws and were still blameless, as if the letter of the law were not of primary concern. Then he made a powerful statement to the Pharisees that hints at the distinction between the Spirit and law. Jesus said that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. It is actually a quote from the Old Testament book of Hosea. Now, mercy is grace and forgiveness that a person extends to another. It is a willingness to overlook a wrong done. Mercy comes from the heart and promotes healing and reconciliation. On the other hand, animal sacrifice was a requirement under Old Testament law to atone for sins. At certain points in history, the hearts of Israelites became hard toward God. They continued to sacrifice animals by requirement of the law, but they neglected to treat others with compassion, respect, and mercy. God expressed displeasure with this hypocrisy. By stating that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, Jesus was saying that he wants people to love from the heart, not just follow rules. The point of religion is to love God and others. Keeping the letter of the law – any law – is not the main point. In this light, the accusation of the Pharisees was technically correct but morally wrong. It was legalistic and made a mountain out of a mole hill. It also came from a harsh and critical spirit because the Pharisees’ real motive was to find fault with the disciples because they did not like how Jesus challenged their religious authority.

So here is one distinction: Living by the Spirit means loving from the heart, not following religious rules.

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