Exodus 11:10-12:14; Matthew 12:1-8
I remember pulling a priest aside after Mass one Sunday to ask him about a verse in Scripture that I didn’t understand. It appears in today’s gospel but also in various forms in both the Old and New Testaments. As spoken by Jesus, the verse is, If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7).
If you knew what this meant. That was exactly my question; what does it mean for God to say I desire mercy, not sacrifice? It turned out that Father didn’t know. If you don’t know either, then apparently we have lots of company, including the Pharisees – those ostensibly pious laypeople who loved to snipe at Jesus, this time for looking the other way while his disciples plucked heads of grain from a wheat field on the Sabbath.
A better understanding requires us to go to the source, a verse that appears in the book of the prophet Hosea. In the translation approved by the American bishops the verse reads: For it is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). In place of “loyalty” other translations use “love” or “mercy.” It can be all of these because the original Hebrew word, hesed, defies easy translation. Perhaps it is best to think of hesed as the infinite love, mercy, and faithfulness of God. Thus, Jesus underscores the prophet’s teaching that God desires love, mercy, and faithfulness, not sacrifice.
It’s easy to understand God desiring that we love as He does but doesn’t God also desire sacrifice? It would seem so. Consider the Mass. We call it the holy sacrifice of the Mass; in it we go out of our way to remember the sacrifice of Abraham our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by the high priest Melchizedek. In confecting the Eucharist we recall the Last Supper, when Christ celebrated the Passover meal with the Twelve. The first reading outlined the ritual in some detail, especially its central event: the sacrifice of a young, unblemished lamb which was a type or foreshadowing of the great memorial sacrifice of Christ, the one true Lamb of God.
However, we also recall at Mass not that our sacrifice be desirable but that it be acceptable. Before the consecration the priest explicitly asks us to pray “that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” Our acceptable sacrifice consists of everything we have laid upon the altar at the Offertory in union with the bread and wine – our entire selves if we so will it – freely offered out of love to the Father, with Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Our self-offering is not only acceptable to God but also precious to him. As parents we accept every gift our children give us but we reserve a special place in our hearts for the gifts that are hardest to give, for we understand the sacrifice involved. After all, that is what sacrifice is: Something precious completely surrendered out of of love for the person who receives it. If such gifts are precious to us, imagine how much more so they are for our Heavenly Father, who understands better than anyone the meaning and love behind them, especially those that cost us the most. As we also know, nothing is harder to give away than our most prized possession – our very self.
If the Pharisees had been thinking from this perspective they would have realized that the disciples were not just walking through a field wantonly plucking heads of grain in supposed violation of the sabbath; they were following Christ, giving their lives every day of the week, including the sabbath, to the Lord of the Sabbath.
So then, why does Christ want us to remember that God desires mercy, not sacrifice? To remind us of two important truths: First, no sacrifice is fruitful if done without love, especially those offered to God; and second, love is most fully expressed when we offer to God what is most pleasing, most precious, and most difficult to give: Ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
As Jesus noted, king David understood this. Despite his many faults, the same king who begged of the high priest the holy bread also had the humility to pray:
… You do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn (Psalm 51:18-19)