Mercy Desired Over Sacrifice

Jesus’ calling of Matthew as recorded in Matthew 9:9-13 contains an interesting exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus.

Matthew, a tax collector, which is a social class most despised by the Jews, is called by Jesus to discipleship. Then, starting in verse ten, it says:

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.‘ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
NRSV Matthew 9:10-13, emphasis mine

What does Jesus mean when he says he desires mercy, not sacrifice? To the Pharisees, who were fixated upon law-keeping and rules - including those of sacrifice, such a concept would seem most foreign. Sacrifice to God was the pinnacle of Jewish religion at the time and was carefully proscribed by scripture. Certainly this would have been troubling to the Pharisees, but what can we learn from the phrase Jesus exhorts all to learn?

If sacrifice was the most important aspect of the Jewish religion, and was less desirable to Jesus than mercy, what do we emphasize in our religion today that would be ranked by Jesus as less important than mercy? Probably all of it - temple attendance, the sacrament, priesthood, tithes, the Word of Wisdom - everything.

And isn’t sacrifice to God in keeping with the first commandment: To love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength? How can it be less desirable than mercy extended to another? My guess is that mercy extended to another is viewed more appropriately by God as conforming to both of the great commandments - for to love another is to also love God.

In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the rules of the religion, even if they come from God (as the Jews claim the Law of Moses did), are not more important than the purpose of the religion, which is for us to become like God.