Restoring the Heart of Religion (Lord of the Sabbath Pt 4)

At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

He said to them … “If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2, 7-8)

In Jesus’s first real clash with the Pharisees back in Matthew 9, they demanded to know why he ate with tax collectors and “sinners” — and he responded by challenging them to go and learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6 (see Matthew 9:10-13, or our exploration of it here).

In this second clash, Jesus did the same, once again invoking Hosea’s words about compassion, loyalty, and the nature of true religion.

In full, the verse reads:

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:6., NKJV)

In Hebrew, the word translated “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is chesed. It’s a powerful word that denotes a devoted, active, and covenantal love — a love that is both deeply compassionate and profoundly loyal, and that is specially expressed between participants in a covenant.

That’s why the HCSB translation of the verse reads, “I desire loyalty and not sacrifice.” Both translations, “loyalty” and “mercy,” bring out an important nuance of chesed.

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and thus in the New Testament, chesed is translated with the Greek word eleos, which stresses the idea of compassion — of being so strongly moved by the pain or need of another that you are driven to identify with that person and help in whatever way you can.

Understood in this way, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” also relates to our dealings with one another: if our religion does not result in our being deeply moved toward each other, practically and compassionately, something is wrong with our religion.

The importance of this whole concept to the Bible (and to our lives) can’t really be overstated. Chesed is the reason God does what he does. Nothing is more vital to us than God’s chesed toward us, and the response he desires from us is chesed too — a faithful love that goes far beyond outward observance and involves the entirety of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Biblically understood, chesed is the heart of religion.

Running into Religion

In our day, the word “religion” has a bad rap. It’s trendy within segments of the church (and the world) to use the word entirely negatively: people say they are “spiritual but not religious”; Christians declare, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” Charismatic Christians regularly speak of a “religious spirit” as a demonic stronghold from which we need deliverance.

But Christianity in all its forms is a religion by any reasonable definition of the word, and I’m concerned that in our hurry to throw the word overboard, we’re both confusing public discourse and overlooking the point.

In the fifth-century classic City of God, St. Augustine underscored the Latin roots of the word “religion,” pointing out that it shares its root with the word “allegiance” (and, in English, with “ligament” — that which binds a body together in wholeness):

We offer Him our allegiance — for “allegiance” and “religion” are at root, the same. We pursue Him with our love so that when we reach Him we may rest in perfect happiness in Him who is our goal. (City of God, Book X).

This is why Scripture does not use the word “religion” negatively but instead speaks of the difference between “true religion” and “false religion.”

Our religion — the set of beliefs and practices that bind us to God and to one another in his covenant with us — is not a negative thing; in fact, it’s vital.

But that’s also why we need to get the heart of our religion right — why we, like the Pharisees, need to deal with Hosea 6:6 and understand that the heart of our faith is loyalty and compassion, toward God and toward each other; and the goal of our faith is not to perfect our observance but to get to know God — truly, personally, in the most life-changing and revolutionary of ways.

“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” Jesus said, evoking the second statement as well — “and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

The Root of Bad Religion

When we read about Jesus’s confrontations with the Pharisees, it’s easy for us to judge them: they were clearly “religious” rather than “spiritual”; they were obviously missing God.

But even as we judge them, we run the risk of missing Jesus’s love for them and the clear warning in all these stories — We are just as prone to Pharisaism as they were; we are just as likely to take religion in the wrong direction, even if (maybe especially if) we’ve been hurt by religion in the past.

The irony is awful, but it’s true: Often the people who oppose the work of God most strenuously are those who claim to be serving God. It’s an unfortunate reality that all of the actions, teachings, and roles that accrue around religion can be used in the service of God or, just as easily, deployed in the service of hypocrisy, legalism, and human agendas.

Ask anyone who’s been abused by a religious leader, stunted by a doctrine used against them rather than for them, or driven to rebellion by a version of Christianity that they find empty and unlivable. It’s hard to embrace right religion without reckoning with bad experiences and old wounds.

The apostle Paul (who knew this dynamic better than anyone), took pains to point out that the reason religion goes awry isn’t that something is wrong with the commands of God, but that sin is present in the human heart (Romans 7:7-12).

Even more specifically, I suspect the problem is pride, which has long been considered the first and most pernicious of sins.

And here I find both the warning and the antidote to bad religion:

If I use religion primarily as a way of defining myself in superiority to others and defending myself against all attacks of uncertainty, pain, or doubt (which might otherwise lead me to humility); if I use religion to bolster my ego and give me a way to dismiss others or harden myself against them (because they are “them,” and we are “us”); if I “use” religion at all to pursue an agenda and identity of my own, sitting in judgment and presuming to mold others in my image, then I am a slave to pride and a brother to the Pharisees, and I risk missing the day of my visitation.

But if I come humble, and hungry, aware first of all of my own need (aware, even, of my pride and my bad religion); if I come seeking love, seeking light, seeking help, seeking God, and learning little by little to desire what he desires — mercy, loyalty, compassion, and devoted love — I will find what I seek. My religion will bind me to God and God to me. This is a harder road, but it gives life.

The Way of Freedom

While the Pharisees were hyper-focused on the most strict and exacting interpretations of the law, with its fasts and sacrifices, the disciples of Jesus were getting to know God and growing in their personal love and loyalty to him.

As they walked through the wheat fields on their way to the synagogue, the disciples followed Jesus out of love. The Father saw their hunger and fed them, out of his fields, from his love. In the simple harmony of this image — Jesus and his friends walking together in the golden morning sunlight, receiving and rejoicing in the Father’s provision on their way to congregational worship — the accusation of the Pharisees sounded like a bad note, wildly out of key.

The truth is, when we use religion to build up our pride, we ourselves are oppressed by our relationship to the things of God. It’s hard, in that situation, not to turn around and oppress others as well. But Jesus can free us even from this.

Hosea 6 opens with a lament:

What am I going to do with you, Ephraim?
What am I going to do with you, Judah?
Your loyalty is like the morning mist
and like the early dew that vanishes.
(Hosea 6:4)

Even so, when we walk not in chesed but in pride, the Lord’s heart mourns for us. Jesus calls us back to true religion, rooted in loyalty and love for God. This loyalty and love, by turn, come only as we receive the true knowledge of God that Jesus alone can give us — the personal knowledge that comes as God reveals himself to us.

As important as obedience to the written word is, we must understand that it’s not all there is, nor is it even the point. The point is loyalty. The point is love. The point is mercy — for ourselves, for one another, for hearts that are desperately hungry and in need.

This is the day of our visitation. The invitation is open. Jesus is willing to reveal himself. God has extended himself to us in mercy and grace. All we need to do is answer.


This is Part 206 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “Restoring the Heart of Religion (Lord of the Sabbath Pt 4)”

  1. Clay J Mize Avatar

    You are pretty good. Good stuff. I first heard you on the publishing for profits podcast and like how you presented yourself. Keep up the good work, the writing and speaking. You are doing a great job.

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