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Am reading through the book of Matthew and in chapter 9 I came across verse 13. It's when Jesus was answering the Pharisees after they asked Him why He ate with the tax collectors and sinners:

13: But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

I didn't give it much of a thought until I came to chapter 12 verse 7. Here again Jesus was answering the pharisees too after they asked Him why His disciples were plucking and eating the ears of grains on a sabbath.

7: But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

And the first part really hit me - 'if ye had known what this meaneth'.

I did a Bible search for the phrase and found Hosea 6:6

For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Can someone please explain to me in a very simple way what the phrase means I desire mercy, and not sacrifice and why Jesus was telling that to the pharisees.

EDIT
The verse makes sense but why the word mercy?

Checking the meaning of the word at google it says:

Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Jesus was with little doubt alluding to the passage in Hosea.

See also Isaiah 1:11-17

11: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
12: When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
13: Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
14: Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
15: And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
16: Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
17: Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

What Jesus was saying was if the Pharisees knew God and understood what really mattered to Him, they would not put such overemphasis on rules about such things as ritual cleanliness and restrictive Sabbath observance.

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Finally understood. God wants us to love Him sincerely not 'bribe' HIm with our gifts and sacrifice. Your answer and @Mason answer have shed light to this issue. Thanks alot and God bless. –  Parto Feb 26 at 13:39
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Probably the clearest explanation is found in Galatians 3:24:

Wherefore the law [of Moses] was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Various times in the Old Testament (see the answer by Confutus for a few examples) the prophets pointed out God's frustration at the people missing the point, but they just missed the point of that too. By the time of Christ, it had gotten to the point where it would not be at all unreasonable to say that the Jews were worshiping God's Law more than they were actually worshiping God.

This is a very easy trap to fall into; replace "the Law" with "the Bible" and you can see evidence of it in several Christian groups today. Jesus was trying to warn them, as had the prophets before him, that they were still missing the point: what God wanted was not a fanatical, fetishistic devotion to the letter of the law, because the law was simply a tool to prepare their minds for the higher law, the law of the Gospel.

What God wanted was for them to grasp the bigger picture, to learn to love him and to love each other. The Pharisees' attitude of condemning and scorning "the sinners" when they themselves were not perfect--instead of, perhaps, using their own moral high ground to help raise these sinners up and help them to repent--showed that they did not understand the bigger picture.

And again, criticizing Jesus and his disciples for taking gleanings to eat while they traveled, which was explicitly permitted and protected by the law, simply because they happened to do it on the Sabbath, is quite a stretch when they attempted to apply a provision meant to prohibit laboring, the day-to-day work that one does as part of their livelihood. (The somewhat stretched Rabbinical logic went like this: picking this grain is a whole lot like harvesting, which is something that, at harvest time, is certainly performed as labor, therefore it should not be done on the Sabbath, just to be on the safe side to make sure we're not accidentally violating one of the commandments.)

The overarching theme, when looking at both of Jesus's complaints in which he pulls out this verse, is that they are missing the big picture, "missing the forest for the trees" in modern parlance.

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The inappropriate administration of God’s authority is being addressed here. There is no question that the Pharisees had authority; the issue with the Pharisees is their lack of love for those that were vulnerable to the administration of that authority.

Ultimately we are all vulnerable to the authority of God, we are fortunate that God is a God of mercy:

In Genesis 19:19 “grace” and “mercy” are used in one statement by Lot to God:

“Behold now, thy servant hath found grace (chen) in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy (checed), which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life”

Grace apears as magnified mercy!

We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is magnified mercy. We know that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9).

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As simply as it can be put The Pharisees, were to the Church what Academia is to the world today, in that they were the supposed experts in the law, and were trusted with teaching the law to the public.

Jesus was scolding them because they had missed the true meaning of what the law, was intended to mean.

To that end both Mason Wheeler, and confutus are correct that he was referring to the passage in Hosea. Rick's answer that he was referring to the inappropriate administering of God's law is also correct, but needs some more explanation.

Like we Christians today the Israelites were determined to do their best to please God, and the Jews of today still try to obey some very strenuous laws to do so.

Jesus scolding of the Pharisees could easily be applied to some today, in that what Jesus was telling both them and us today is that no Sacrifice will atone for sin without God's grace.

Even to this day far too many people still do not understand how forgiveness works through sacrifice.

one joke that was told to me pretty well sums up the discrepancy;

Baptist do not recognize other Baptist in the liquor store. That is meant to be funny, and we can laugh at it,(which I did), but on closer inspection there is far too much truth there.

The real message Jesus meant to convey, was that the Pharisees were deluding the people by teaching them that forgiveness was earned by doing all those things and then making a sacrifice to God.

The true meaning of Jesus was (knowing that He was the ultimate sacrifice) Do you think that I came down from Heaven, to suffer and die for such menial things?

My Jesus did not suffer and die, for any other reason than to bring God' Mercy, to those who truly regret that they have saddened God, by their selfishness.

consider these Scriptures:

Matthew 26:28 KJV For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

I have highlighted the second part because it says for many and not all.

Matthew 7:14 KJV Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

finally consider these Scriptures:

Matthew 7:21 through 23 KJV

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Back to your original question The true emphasis in:

"But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless."

is "If you had taught the true meaning of the Scriptures, you would know that these are innocent in God's eyes, but guilty in yours, because you have perverted God's laws."

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