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. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
This passage deals with an incident that happened on this most holy day of the week. The Sabbath was everything to God’s people under the Old Covenant. The Jews had extensive regulations for how to properly keep the Sabbath in order to abide by God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and dedicated to him. The encounter is between Jesus (and his disciples) and the Pharisees over the meaning and significance of the Sabbath. Jesus and the Pharisees saw the purpose and observance of the Sabbath in completely different ways.
After being critically questioned by the Pharisees when Jesus’ disciples picked grain and ate it on the Sabbath as they were walking through a field, Jesus responds by explaining their misperception in what the Sabbath truly was. Jesus did not dismiss the appropriateness for Sabbath observance; that was good and necessary according to the law given by God (cf. Exod 20:10). However, the Jews had the wrong idea altogether about the significance and meaning of the Sabbath. For them, the Sabbath was about never doing anything that would violate the commandment to not work on the seventh day of the week—no exceptions!
But Jesus offers them two exceptions straight from the writing of the law that they were trying to follow so strictly: David (1 Sam 21:1-6) and the priests (Num 28:9-10). But Jesus then affirms that “something greater” is now here, something even beyond the hunger of David and his men, or the necessity of the priests to offer sacrifices. These reasons to set aside strict observance of the Sabbath pales in comparison to the coming of Christ to bring salvation to all people.
Therefore, Jesus says, “if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (v. 7; cf. Hos 6:6) to point out that the Pharisees, while intently reading the law and desiring to follow its every command, had failed to realize the heart of the law. It is not that sacrifice was not important, for it had also been commanded by God, but that “mercy” (or compassion) was MORE important. Mercy and compassion are what truly characterize a servant of God, not external and outward actions only. Strict mechanical obedience to the law is not what God desires; God desires to care for people and to see to their needs.
Are there times when you are challenged to not act as a Pharisee, to not be quick to judge or claim being right? Is our heart the same as God’s heart? Is “mercy” more important than “sacrifice”? Our fallen humanness will tell us to make sure we are doing what is “right” and are not at “fault” or culpable of any criticism. We don’t want to be viewed as an accomplice or advocate for unrighteousness. But compassion isn’t about tolerating sin; it is about reaching out and helping someone where they are at, so they know that someone else cares about them. That is God’s heart. Let’s not miss it like the Pharisees did.