After much prayer and contemplation, I have learned these things, over time, from the Holy Spirit. There are many lessons to learn from Matthew 12 1-8. The overall message, at a quick glance, is that Jesus and His disciples are being watched and condemned by a group of people that believe that they know God and His law better than anyone. They pride themselves in tradition and, because of their blindness, they can't see the true God, who happens to be standing right in front of them.
Before understanding what is meant by "I desire mercy and not sacrifice", there is an important principle that must also be understood; that "worship" is, in essence, "imitation". This can easily be observed in our modern pop culture when youth "worship" their favorite public figure by imitation.
Does God Desire Sacrifice?
Deep inside the nature of man, in the psyche, are "shades of the garden". When the first parents did what they did, and ran when God came calling, it shows that a change had occurred in their thinking. "God was now out to get them". In an effort to cover their guilt, they covered themselves, which is symbolic of man's thinking that he can be good; that he can appease the "angry God". A sacrifice was made, evidently, as God provided them with the skins of animals to cover their nakedness (guilt and shame among other things). Imagine what they were thinking as he approached them with the skins of dead animals. "We're next", "He did say afterall, 'you shall surely die'". They now had entered into "new thinking", that has been genetically passed on to all of mankind. I like to refer to it as "the angry God syndrome".
When God later instituted the sacrificial system, I believe that the people of that day were thinking something like this..."God is just licking His chops to punish us for our selfish acts, so instead of eliminating us, He has relented, and will be satisfied with the death of our favorite pet." They obviously did not understand, as a people, the purpose or meaning of the sacrifice, or else they would have expected the "lamb of God would come to take away the sins of the world". They would have been looking for a Saviour instead of a King. Since their traditional thinking was limited to seeing God as angry and condemning, and since the principle of worship is imitation, they became an angry and condemning people. They sought to make many extra rules and obligations in order to appease the angry God and thereby escape the yoke of Roman bondage. "By beholding we become changed." If ones view of "god" is marred, one will automatically imitate that in their behavior. If our view of Him is healthy, then...we will be at peace. It's the principle of worship.
Today, if you ask any Christian, "Why did God institute the sacrificial system? What was its main purpose?...you may get an answer like..."It was to demonstrate the plan of salvation and God's love for humanity". This answer is correct, but it's only half of the story. Think of the sacrificial system for a moment. There are two parties involved...one innocent party and one guilty...angry if you will. Which of the two represents God?...the innocent animal?...or the one with the knife? Of course you know that God is the innocent one. That leaves man as the angry one...the one doing the killing. "Whoever is angry with their brother without cause is guilty of murder". God instituted the sacrificial system so that hopefully, people would see themselves as being the angry party and not Himself. Unfortunately, God could not tell them outright. It would have to be learned by natural demonstration. Of course, this was fully demonstrated when Jesus was murdered. Technically, it was first demonstrated by Lucifer, since "he is a murderer from the beginning". How? Look carefully. Heaven is where "the wages of sin is death" was first demonstrated. Who did Lucifer become angry with without cause? Who did he hate? What replaced love for God?...Love for self (selfishness) replaced love for God. God, or at least love for Him, once dwelt in the heart of Lucy baby, but He was replaced with "self love", or selfishness or sin. Let me rephrase that verse in light of the cross. "The wages of sin (selfishness) is the death of...what? What is the opposite of sin or selfishnesss? Love. Since God is Love, the wages of selfishness is the death of God ( in our hearts). Only love or selfishness can coexist in our hearts at one time since they are polar opposites. Ultimately, it is sin or selfishness that wants the sacrifice. So... does God desire this kind of sacrifice?...the death of humans or animals? No. He says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice". I believe that He instituted the system, (which they used as food by the way), to try to teach the two lessons as mentioned above. Imagine Him telling the average person that they had, in their nature, a desire to eliminate Him. I expect most people wouldn't believe Him since they are "covered with fig leaves". (Even though today, many people are in the process of eliminating Him). Many others are busy thinking that God wants to eliminate them if they think of Him at all. So,..who desires the sacrifice? We do. Who desires mercy? God does. He does not want to be rejected or abandoned. (Imagine if He did want that...what kind of God would He be?)
The good news is that God is a responsible God. He also desires a sacrifice. Perfect love casts out fear, worry and doubt which can be other forms of selfishness. God is at war with selfishness, condemnation, guilt, fear etc. and He desires to eliminate those things from our hearts so that we can have peace of mind, confidence and purpose. He wants us to enjoy some "replacement therapy". He wants "selfishness" to be sacrificed and replaced with good things. Often, when discouraged or tired, we like to medicate ourselves. We may use booze, drugs, sex, religion, reputation, work, entertainment and a host of other things to comfort ourselves. These things may indeed bring temporal satisfaction, but not the deep, nagging "missing-piece-of-the-puzzle" that we long for. Ultimately, we want purpose and relevance. We have been busy chasing the elusive dream, or maybe we having nagging emotional pain due to lack of forgiveness on our part or because of guilt. Perhaps we have "arrived", having every material possession, wealth and fame. The responsibilities of life have become overwhelming. Many, including myself, are discovering Jesus. We have begun to see "with new eyes" as it were. We have tasted, and it is good. You may have heard people say that the bible has lost its interpretation over the years. I agree. There are two ways of reading. One, where seeing God as angry...the other, seeing Him as what He must logically be...a God of immense love and mercy. Not one out to "get you". Not one desiring the death of the innocent.
In summary, Jesus is asking the religious people of the day to "repent"...to receive the gift of new thinking. Since they viewed God as being the angry and condemning one that makes salvation difficult; and since the principle of worship is imitation, they couldn't help but condemn Him. This had become their nature. It is sinful man that desires the sacrifice...not God. If they would see God as He truly is, a God of incredible mercy and love, they would have become like that. They would have had mercy on Him and not sought to eliminate Him. He desires mercy, for Himself and us. He does not want to be eliminated out of our hearts.