By Anthony Casperson
One of the things about the way I think is that I often take the commonplace, everybody-takes-this-for-granted type of ideas/truths and ask the question “Why?” It’s not about needing to have a reason to accept a statement. Most of the time, I want to accept the statement. And it certainly isn’t just an annoying, child-like questioning until everyone finally stops answering. (I drive a school bus. I get that enough.)
Rather, I believe that in asking why something is true, we gain a richer understanding of that which we question. Learning why something is true allows us to see the truth more clearly. That might not make a whole lot of sense to everybody, but it’s an early part of the mental adventure I experienced this week.
It began with researching an upcoming sermon. A minor point in the research sent me looking at Hosea 6:6. It connected with my sermon, but only in a slight, tangential sense. And I didn’t think much about it. But then the next day, my daily reading of the bible lead me to Hosea 6, and I read the verse again.
I truly hold to the opinion that if two or more people/events, that aren’t closely related to one another, lead someone to the exact same place, then there’s likely a reason for it. And we should pay attention to it. Here I was, with both my sermon prep and my daily bible reading, looking at the same verse twice in less than 24 hours. So, I looked at it more closely.
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (ESV).
Sure, we who are followers of Jesus look at the verse and agree. “Yeah, to love God is better than to seek forgiveness for our failings.” It makes sense. We feel a little bad for not always pursuing God all the time. And then we move on, hoping to do better next time.
But something in me had to ask, “Why?”
Why is steadfast love better than sacrifice? Why is it better for us to be faithful in our relationship with God than to seek restitution when we fail? Don’t we have the saying “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” in the back of our heads? Are we not growing closer to God in both our obedience and our repentance? So, if both help us grow closer to God in their own unique ways, why is one better than the other?
Hooked on that question, I began a deeper dive. And I figured it was worth sharing. (Plus, it took up the time I would normally spend for thinking about a blog.)
Hosea was an Old Testament prophet sent to the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the nation split. The Southern Kingdom of Judah had at least maintained an illusion of following close to the God of Israel, but to the north, things were far less Yahweh-focused.
They’d gone after other gods, forming relationships with hunks of wood and metal, prostituting themselves (sometimes literally) with the worship of self-created idols. God sent Hosea to call a rebellious people back to him. A people whose faithfulness to the covenant between them and God was like a fog in the early morning that disappears after a short time. It was like the dew that evaporates shortly after glistening beautifully in the morning light.
That word for “love” in Hosea 6:6 has a nearly-indescribable meaning. It’s translated as love, faithfulness, grace, loyalty, favor, kindness. And the Greek translation of this verse uses a word that we translate as “mercy, pity, compassion.” It’s all of that wrapped up in one word. And it’s used of God’s perspective toward the covenant he makes with his people.
And the word for “know” later in the verse isn’t having a passing knowledge of God, but an intimate, sensory knowledge of him. This is put in poetic parallel with the “love” word, so we have to add this to our understanding of the word as well. And this, God desires, prefers, over the sacrifice that leads to our forgiveness.
Yet, in all of this understanding, there still wasn’t an answer as to why it’s better.
Then, I discovered there are two places where Jesus quotes this verse, both found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matt. 9, the Pharisees asked Jesus why he ate with tax-collectors and “sinners.” Jesus tells them to learn Hosea 6:6, and then lets them know that he’s come to call sinners, not the righteous.
And then, in Matt. 12, the Pharisees find contempt in Jesus and his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus mentions a couple of things, but the one that struck me was when Jesus says that the priests “profane the Sabbath and are guiltless” (Matt. 12:5). Then, he says, in verse 7, that if they had known what Hosea 6:6 means, they wouldn’t have condemned the guiltless.
How do the priests “profane the Sabbath” and how does that relate to Hosea 6:6? The Pharisees had major issues with doing “work” on the Sabbath. And yet there were sacrifices to be made on that day. Slaughtering an animal (which is a decent chunk of what sacrifices entailed) would be considered “work” to a Pharisee, but the priests (the upholders of the Law of Moses) are COMMANDED to perform this work ON THE SABBATH.
In performing their God-ordained purpose, the priests actions actually supercede the command for rest. Why is that? The priests’ act of offering sacrifice isn’t for themselves, but to aid others in their worship of God. How would anyone perform the sacrifices that needed to be offered on the Sabbath, if all of the priests said, “Come back tomorrow, we’re taking a break” to anyone entering the temple that day?
So, in obedience to God by doing as he commands, they help others worship…even as they “work” on the Sabbath.
And come to think about it, the biggest problem of the Pharisees was that they focused so much on their own actions being “according to the Law” that they lost focus on others. Jesus comes straight out and tells them this in Matt 23:23. They count out the smallest of grains to make sure that they don’t give too much for their tithe, but neglect the weightier matters of justice, MERCY (our word from Hosea 6:6), and faithfulness.
Any momentary thought of leading others in the worship of God led to proselytes that were “twice the children of hell” than what the Pharisees were (Matt. 23:15). The Pharisees were so focused on their own standing with God that, at best, they led others to be just as self-focused as they were.
So, it seems that there’s a focus on others that seems to be of importance here. And if we take that back to Hosea 6:6, does that help us read it differently? God prefers faithfulness to his calling for us to love and care for others over our growth that comes through being forgiven.
Asking for forgiveness can lead to personal growth in our relationship with God. We progress in growth as we profess our sins. But that is entirely focused on our own personal spiritual growth. However, when we do as God commands us to do, we help others grow in their worship of God, like the priests did during the time of Jesus.
So, why is love better than sacrifice? Both can help us grow in relationship with God, but only one allows us to take part in the growth of other children of God. And to the God who lets us know that the greatest commandment is to love God with our entire being and to love others as ourselves, I can see why he’d prefer love over sacrifice.
As we go about our lives, let’s keep in mind that, while all of our failings can be forgiven, we miss out on some aspect of love when we fail to do as God calls us to do. Faithful, God-like love is the very best thing we can do.