“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7, NIV2)
Do we know what mercy really means? We may know its definition, but do we truly know its meaning?
Those who face calamity get a hint of what mercy truly signifies, but only God can reveal to us its complete meaning.
Leopoldine was the apple of Victor Hugo’s eye. This was the same Victor Hugo who was the famous Romantic writer from France in the 1800s, and nothing surpassed his love for this fine daughter. On September 4, 1843, at just 19 years of age, she and her husband, along with a couple of friends, went for a boat ride on the Seine River near Villequier, France. They were still newlyweds at the time, and they were enjoying each other’s company throughout this sailboat expedition.
Suddenly a heavy gust of wind overturned the boat. Their two friends drowned immediately, but Leopoldine’s dress became stuck, and she found herself trapped under the boat. Her husband, Charles, being a good swimmer, did everything he could to rescue her. Tragically, both ran out of oxygen and drowned.
Victor Hugo was completely heartbroken when he heard this tragic news, so much that he wasn’t able to produce any significant works for the next ten years. The tragedy, however, helped him realize what really mattered in life, and he became a bit more aware of what mercy means.
In 1862, 19 years after the drowning of his beloved daughter, Victor Hugo published his most renowned masterpiece: Les Misérables. In this work, Jean Valjean experiences mercy firsthand and it turns his world upside down. From being completely egocentric, he becomes a beam of hope, as his love for others puts him in the place where he can help the helpless so that they, too, could experience the true meaning of mercy. From a restless individual, Jean became a person who rested in love.
To us, as human beings, mercy is truly a hard concept. Just look what happened when “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.” (Matthew 12:1, NIV2)
The religious zealots naturally noticed this, and they quickly accused Jesus of heresy: “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.'” (Matthew 12:2, NIV2) Would we have done any better if we had been in their shoes? How many of us still rely more on tradition than on the Word of God?
That’s exactly what Jesus tried to point out: “Haven’t you read (God’s Word) . . .?” (Matthew 12:3, NIV2)
It’s true that religious zealots will use Scriptures to defend their position, but then, even sinners use the Bible to justify themselves. It’s easy to quote out of context!
Jesus referred to David and his companions. When they were hungry they ate the consecrated bread from the house of God. Wasn’t that unlawful according to tradition? But David still did it, and God didn’t condemn him! (See verses 3 and 4)
And what about the priests who were doing their duties on Sabbath in the temple? Weren’t they, according to their traditions, desecrating the Sabbath? Still God considered them innocent (See verse 5).
Jesus concluded: “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6, NIV2) How true! Jesus was the fulfillment of what the temple symbolized. He was the atoning sacrifice that brought salvation to all of the human race. He is the living bread, the light that shines throughout the world.
Too often we miss the boat. The Sabbath was never meant for rituals and legalism. It was meant as a means to become acquainted with God. And given the human tendency to work non-stop throughout life, how else could we come to experience God?
Then comes the reproach, one that many of us can identify with: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7, NIV2)
For most of us, sacrifice is much easier than showing mercy! And even there we fall short! Tragedy can teach us a lesson or two about mercy. Just ask Victor Hugo! But no one can teach us more about mercy that Jesus Himself, the fulfillment of the temple, who willingly died a horrific death on a cross so that we could experience not only mercy, but also pure genuine love from above. Do we even have any right to accuse anyone? Jesus didn’t just die for the righteous, but for the unrighteous as well (See John 3:16)!
Then reality was brought: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8, NIV2) He is also the Lord of Mercy, and this goes hand in hand with our resting in God. Next time we will explore what this really means.
“Excuse me, could you help me please?”
Will we walk by indifferently, or will we do something about this plea?
What would Jesus have done?
(To access the entire “Restful Repose” devotional series, please click here.)