Back in chapter 9, Matthew recorded the Pharisees seeing Jesus eating dinner at his (Matthew’s) house. At the time, Jesus was dinning with many tax collectors and people known to be violators of God’s law. The Pharisees then approached Christ’s disciples and asked why Jesus would do such a thing. Jesus’ advice to the Pharisees in response was, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
That was some time ago. As the Gospel narrative continues, we read of the Pharisees confronting Jesus about His disciples’ behavior. Although this time the parties being called to account are different, Jesus’ advice to the people pointing out the error is along exactly the same lines, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” The behavior of the Pharisees (in pointing out the religious error of others) was all Jesus needed to know that they had not grasped what He had earlier told them; Mercy always triumphs over ritualistic observance.
You would think they would’ve at least looked into the matter. If they did, they would’ve found that mercy saved Noah, who in merely acting according to what he knew of God’s character found mercy and shelter for his whole family from worldwide catastrophe before any of God’s Law was given. The same with Abram, who had listened to God’s call and found God’s mercy overshadowing his foolish missteps in Egypt – it was only later he built an altar to God and sacrificed. And what of Lot, who was saved by Abraham’s intercession before the ten commandments were given? Even then, it was mercy triumphing over sacrifice when Moses found God’s mercy sufficient for the forgiveness and redemption of his whole nation – well before the tabernacle was built.
Likewise with Rahab, who appealed to what she knew of God and found salvation for her family long before she could participate in Jewish ritual. Also with David, who cried for mercy after his moral failure and found reinstatement as King before the temple was built. Yet in spite of these (and many more) examples in the scrolls they knew, the Pharisees still sought to put ritualistic obedience ahead of God’s mercy. So though Jesus had told them once before, He tells them again. Last time they but lacked that direct instruction. This time they still ignore it, and they’ve compounded their error by condemning the innocent.
When God gives us a Word He expects us to act on it. We cannot simply dismiss or overlook it and move forward. We cannot jump over a lesson in our discipleship journey. Jesus will just bring us back to the same point again later.
As Eugene Peterson noted, discipleship is a long steady obedience in the same direction. Although the road of discipleship has many twists and turns, there are no shortcuts, and trying to take one always results in a greater error than just ignorance!
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.James, brother of Jesus the Christ (from Jas 1:22–25)
Is there an instruction that God told you that you have thus far ignored?