While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)
As we began to see last week, this first confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees is fraught with meaning. But its real power comes out in the Old Testament quotation itself — or more accurately, in all the weight that quotation carries.
In the oral world of Jesus’ day, a quotation’s meaning was not confined to itself. It extended out, pulling in all the context and allusions of the quote’s source.
Jesus knew that the Pharisees were familiar with Hosea; their whole lives were dedicated to countering the kind of apostasy Hosea condemned.
So when he quotes a line and tells them to “go and learn what this means,” it’s not only the words in the quote that matter, but everything surrounding those words as well.
And as it turns out, those surroundings in Hosea are particularly rich.
What This Means
To unpack this, let’s begin with the line itself. Hosea 6:6 reads, in its entirety:
For I desire [mercy] and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
I’ve placed “mercy” in square brackets here because the Holman Christian Standard Bible actually translates this Old Testament word “loyalty.” It’s a fair translation: the Hebrew word is chesed, a rich word for the covenant love of God that is impossible to translate directly into English.
Chesed most properly means “devoted love,” with connotations of loyalty, strength, kindness, and compassion.
Interestingly, Greek translators of the Old Testament seized on the “compassion” element of the word’s meaning — probably because Hosea emphasizes the forgiveness and undeserved compassion of God so strongly. These are necessary because God is devoted to one who is unfaithful to him, and so in order for God to carry out his covenant love, he must be self-sacrificially merciful.
Greek translators thus rendered “chesed” here as the Greek word “eleos,” which means an outward action of deep pity or compassion.
So Matthew, writing in Greek, has Jesus say “eleos,” mercy, and not loyalty or faithfulness. In his faithfulness to his people, Jesus says, God desires mercy for them and not simply sacrifice.
In telling the Pharisees this, Jesus reminds them that God’s compassion extends to those who are farthest away from him. And in fact, mercy in the way God’s people treat one another outweighs sacrifice, even ritual sacrifices commanded by the covenant, in the eyes of God.
If they share God’s heart, then, the Pharisees should not simply want to reject and cut off those who are apostate: they should desire to see them brought to repentance, returned to the fold — healed.
But there is far more to what Jesus is saying here. When the Pharisees “go and learn what this means,” they will also encounter Jesus’ mission in a profound and startling way.
A Renewed Romance
Among the Old Testament prophets, Hosea stands out for the way his life became a picture of the spiritual realities of his time. He was commanded to go and marry a prostitute as a sign to Israel of how their own behavior was not only scandalous but also brought deep grief and pain to God, who was faithful to them and in fact loved them.
It’s a book full of harsh pronouncements of judgment and indictments of Israel’s sin. But in the midst of this is a constant refrain: that God will have compassion, that he will withdraw his hand of judgment, and that he will romance his people all over again.
One day, as unlikely as it seems, God’s people will reject their idols and respond to the alluring and gently persuasive voice of their God. Although God must bring judgment for a time, yet his people will seek him again.
Hosea 5 ends with these words:
I will depart and return to My place,
Until they recognize their guilt and seek My face;
They will search for Me in their distress.
Then comes the passage immediately preceding Jesus’ quote:
Come, let us return to the LORD,
For He has torn us,
And He will heal us;
He has wounded us,
And He will bind up our wounds.
He will revive us after two days,
And on the third day
He will raise us up,
So we can live in His presence.
Let us strive to know the LORD.
His appearance is as sure as the dawn.
He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring showers that water the land.
It is the sick and wounded, Jesus says, who need a doctor; and I am here to heal them.
Those words resound in the context of Hosea, declaring not only why Jesus is here but who he is. Suddenly Jesus’ eating with apostates is seen to be part of the same mission that had him healing the sick and delivering the demonized: at long last, just as he promised, Yahweh has come like the rain, and anyone who will seek His face will find Him and be healed.
When, on the third day, Jesus was literally raised up, his identification with this passage would become undeniable. Jesus identifies with both the wronged Bridegroom, willing to forgive, and the sinful people, needing resurrection.
The cross and resurrection would bring full and final healing, forgiveness, and atonement; the Old Covenant would pass away, replaced by a New Covenant — a new marriage.
Anyone who desired to be part of that marriage was welcome. All they had to do was return to the Lord, seek his face — and then live forever in his presence.
Where the Pharisees Went Wrong
Two thousand years later it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together and dismiss them lightly, but that’s not really fair. Some Pharisees undoubtedly DID ponder Hosea 6 and DID put the pieces together: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Paul the apostle were all Pharisees.
But ultimately, the Pharisees as a group rejected Jesus as Messiah and certainly rejected him as God incarnate. They continued on with their program of righteousness, of attempting a return to the Lord through the Old Covenant of purification rites, tithing, temple, and sacrifice.
In Romans 10:1-4, Paul describes the condition of his people in very Pharasaic terms:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them is for their salvation! I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness.
Looking back from the cross, Paul goes on to explain, “For Christ is the end [Greek telos, the goal, the end-point, the fulfillment and termination] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
In the end, the Pharisees’ attempts to reach God through their own righteousness were doomed to fail. As Paul’s own life illustrates, the best they could produce were still “filthy rags” — tainted by hypocrisy, cruelty, and pride.
Ultimately that is how the Bible speaks of every human attempt to get to God through good works, strict standards, or religious and social elitism.
The good news is that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice — devoted love, and not ritualistic superiority. The good news is that the Bridegroom of Hosea has come, and he is not only willing to renew a broken marriage but to bring cleansing, healing, and a new identity to the adulterous bride.
This is the gospel, in the end: We cannot reach God in our own strength, but that doesn’t have to matter … because in his humility and devotion, he has chosen to reach us.
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This is Part 120 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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