“…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”

(Mt 9:13) [1]



We chose this passage from Matthews Gospel as our guide for Lent. The saying is from the story of the calling of Matthew himself when Jesus with these words silences the Pharisees who questioned his sitting at the table and so entering in communion with tax collectors and “sinners” (accused by sins of sexual type usually in that time), that is with people considered “impure”. Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea who put these words as the admonition coming from Yahweh: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). You might want to read that whole Chapter 6 which begins with some verses very adapt for the Lenten time as a call for sincere conversion:

“Come, let us return to the LORD.

       He has torn us to pieces

       but he will heal us;

       he has injured us

       but he will bind up our wounds…” (Hos 6:1 ff).

Seems like this was a favorite passage for Jesus since we find him quoting it again when the Pharisees were complaining that the disciples collect heads of grain on Sabbath to eat – an activity considered unlawful (Mt 12:1-8) by the pious men of Israel. The message of it echoes that one of the prophetic tradition; the prophets of Israel continuously called the people to return to the covenant with God, and passionately warned against false religiosity, against bold trust placed in the fact of being the chosen people, against relying vainly on festivities and sacrifices without a way of life according to the heart of the covenant. God in his covenant with the people dealt in greater part with social justice not so much with “religious” duties toward Yahweh as the most ancient law of Israel, the ten commandments and the code of the covenant (Ex 20:1-23:33) shows it.

Jesus continuing this sense of religion as a way of life announced love as the essence of the new covenant: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34, see also Jn 15:12 ff). In the description of the final judgment (Mt 25:31-46) shows clearly that the criterion of it will be the deeds of care and mercy toward the “least” ones, the hungry, the persecuted, the ill and the oppressed people of all times with whom Jesus identified himself (v. 40). Knowledge of God is love. Since God is love and there is no other way to know him than in the acts of concrete love (see 1 Jn 1:3-6; 3:7 ff).

False religiosity is as much a danger in Christianity as it was in the time of the prophets in Israel. It is continuously the danger to reduce religion from love that is risky and challenging, from “mercy” to easily controllable factors, “sacrifices”. False Christianity makes one believe to be saved by belonging and tithing to the right club or church, by pronouncing some prayers, by being “good, moral persons”. Of course it reduces the realm morality, identifying sin with sexuality and realities connected with it like the question of abortion, homosexuality and similar. In the same time such reductionism in morality renders it blind on anything else outside of the strict field of personal conduct in sexual matters. Reductionism makes things apparently “simpler” easily understandable and invades all areas of life; it identifies the blessings of God with financial prosperity or power, thinking that being rich and affluent means being better and graced by God. It divides the world for “us” and “them”, “us” being the “righteous”, and “them” are the wicked and condemned. Jesus condemned attitudes like this and continuously fought against it in his clashes with the rather pious sect of the Pharisees. Of them who thought themselves be the first class religious persons Jesus said that prostitutes will precede them in heaven: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21:32). Instead Jesus’ message of holiness excludes such separatism and demands to love all including the “enemies” in order to be children of God whose love is universal toward all people (Mt 5:43-48). We reflect shortly upon this and on the admonition of Jesus: “…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13)


This age-old falsity was however present all along the history of salvation and in returning to “mercy” this Lenten season we can get help from reflecting upon the writings of prophets who denounced false religiosity in their time but their words bring valid messages for us today.

Let us first read Jeremiah speaking up against the empty trust put in the Temple, that is the conviction that being part of the right group is enough for “being saved” and use it as a mirror to see how we think of our relationship to God:

«This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD : “Stand at the gate of the LORD's house and there proclaim this message:" 'Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!"  If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jer 7:1-7)

We see this difference of attitude illustrated in the New Testament by parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). Read also this passage and use it for personal meditation. We can recognize that sometimes we fall into this false religiosity, then we reflect upon what we should do. “…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13)


Our second prophetic reading is from of the book of Isaiah. In the first chapter the prophet speaking for Yahweh exposes the sins of the people whom he calls “rebellious nation” (v.2) who does not know God any more: “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (v.3). This image brings us back in a sense to the mystery of Christmas; the ox and the donkey present in the manger scenes originally promoted by St. Francis of Assisi came from this passage. As in the time of Isaiah the people did not understand God, so was it with Jesus, incarnated Son of God whom the world did not know and as the prolog of John’s gospel states: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). Not knowing God led the people to rebel and go astray as the rejection of Jesus resulted in the crucifixion. We can reflect upon that sometimes we act like that, and do not realize God’s presence in the world and in humankind, and don’t recognize the real, living Christ is in all men and women of the earth, even if he told that he is to be found and loved in them. “…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13)


The prophet then goes on to describe the personal and national afflictions and the treacherousness of the leaders:

“From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness— only wounds and welts and open sores… Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire…See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers!… Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them” (v. 5-10 and 21 ff)


Isaiah decries the uselessness of the sacrifices and religious ceremonies without a real change in heart, practices that offend God instead of pleasing him:

« “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them”» (v. 11-14)


Sometimes we in act a similar way and witness things that remind to the situation of the people of the prophet. Then we reflect upon the admonition: “…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13)


Without justice, mercy and peace prayers remain unanswered, God does not even wants to hear the praises and requests of whose “hands are full of blood” until they return to care of the poor and give justice to the oppressed:

«When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow» (v. 15-17).

God’s forgiveness is ready and infinite as these beautiful words try to encourage us to turn to him:

«"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool…» (v. 18 ff)

Not only as individuals but also as his people we need conversion, spiritual renewal and God’s mercy, and our God promises also today as did through the words of Isaiah that he will bring his Kingdom of justice, peace and knowledge of God on earth:

“…They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Is 2:4-5).

Let us pray that this Lenten season would bring us more into God’s mercy and his Kingdom as we heed to Jesus’ invitation: “…go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13)



[1] The Scriptural quotes are from the New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.