God’s Priorities: Towards a Hierarchy

“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6, NKJV)

I have previously written about how I understand God’s priorities. At the end of that post, I listed the two times Jesus refers to the first phrase in Hosea 6:6 (I desire mercy and not sacrifice), but I did not comment on them. Picking up where I left off, I want to look at the second of those two occasions (Matt. 12:1-8).

Before considering the hierarchy that I see Jesus building, it might be worth our time to think about the word sacrifice. Today we may think of “giving up something of value” when we hear the word sacrifice. “She sacrificed a lot to become an Olympian at age 15.” “He made a lot of sacrifices to get out of debt.” That element is certainly relevant to the concept of sacrifice; people did give up their unspotted animals to be killed at the altar. But sacrifice meant more than giving up something; it was slaughter of animals or the giving of grain for a purpose. It was central to their religious and social experience. It was an act of devotion, a symbol of contrition, an act that would lead to their reconciliation with God and with others. All this and much more. Therefore, to be true to the original meaning, let us mentally define sacrifice as religious ritual. “I desire mercy, not religious ritual.” Now we’ve got the radical message of Hosea and Jesus back in our face.

“God, you can’t be serious! You’ve given our nation very detailed instructions about religious observance, and now You’re saying that as important as that is to you, mercy is even more central to what you’re after? What?!”

This is why Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus were such thorns in the side of the religious leaders. God desires mercy more than religious ritual?!!!

With that in mind, let’s return to Matthew 12:1-8. What is the hierarchy of values we find there? The story is set on the Sabbath. The disciples are hungry. They’re in a field of grain. They take some heads of grain and nib a bit. The Pharisees go off.

The Pharisees have the ritual, and Jesus wants them to grasp God’s greater value system. To shorten the analysis, let’s skip David and company breaking the ceremonial law and begin with the Sabbath in verse 5, “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” Here’s our first valuation. The Sabbath is a commandment of God. Priestly work of sacrificing is also a commandment of God (Num. 28:9-10). Priestly work breaks the Sabbath, but it is more important for them in their role as leaders than is Sabbath rest, so it must be done (graded absolutism?). They follow the higher priority, so they are guiltless or blameless.

Next Jesus springs Hosea on them–God desires mercy not sacrifice. Jesus had just said that sacrifice trumps Sabbath rest, and now he says that mercy trumps sacrifice. The mini-hierarchy, as I see it in these verses, looks like this: Sabbath < sacrifice/religious ritual < mercy. This is consistent with the “help the donkey in the ditch” scenario (Ex. 23:5 & Deut. 22:4) and with Jesus’ acts of helping people on the Sabbath, such as that described in the very next verses (9-14). “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12). (Rob Bell considers this story as told in Mark 3:1-6 in Nooma: Store.)

I believe this hierarchy is what enables Ellen White to state:

In the story of the good Samaritan, Christ illustrates the nature of true religion. He shows that it consists not in systems, creeds, or rites, but in the performance of loving deeds, in bringing the greatest good to others…. Unless there is practical self-sacrifice for the good of others, in the family circle, in the neighborhood, in the church, and wherever we may be, then whatever our profession we are not Christians. (The Desire of Ages, pp. 497, 504). [yes, the same quote i recently used here]

So what might this mean for us, for me? What might it look like today? First, preachers need to preach even though it’s stressful. It’s work; pastors who don’t preach don’t tend to get paid. So it breaks the Sabbath, but it’s a higher good. They should do it.

Second, we generally agree that jobs which are critical to human care are also appropriate on Sabbath–doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, etc. We don’t always agree on where the list ends, but we share the general valuation. Hopefully these people have work rotations so they can participate in worship and the congregational community as much as possible.

Third, a family getting a herd of kids ready for church is work. It would be much more restful to let them stay in their pajamas or to go play in a park. But we do need to play our parts in our local faith community. People need us, and we need them. There is great good in worshiping together, discussing important topics together, sharing the stories of life, and testing our luck of the pot in the fellowship hall. This is good. This is work, but it is important. We do these things.

On most of those points, we agree. But what about this mercy thing? Jesus said religious observance and ritual trump the commandment to rest and that mercy supersedes religious ritual. So how comfortable am I with demonstrating mercy on Sabbath?

It might be worth noting that none of Jesus’ Sabbath healings–as I understand them–were “emergencies.” For example, the withered hand could have waited a day to regain its strength. This was not a donkey in a ditch or a house on fire; it could have waited. But love can’t wait. Mercy and compassion are compelled to act when need or suffering is observed, even if it is not a life-and-death emergency.

As you read the following words from Ellen White, consider these questions:

  1. What hierarchies do I notice? What things are important to God, and how are they related to each other?
  2. Does this make me uncomfortable? If so, why? What buttons is it pushing for me?
  3. Are these quotations addressing principles or applications? How might this distinction affect how I attempt to apply the statements to my own life?
  4. How have I and my congregation embodied these statements?
  5. How might I need to change to better live out these principles?
  6. Is there a difference between working to meet one’s own needs and the needs of others on the Sabbath? If so, why and how is this significant? What is the role of “faith in God” in this consideration?
  7. When does a “need” become something that causes suffering? Where is there suffering in my community today? What can I do about it? What can my congregation do to mitigate or end this suffering? How might the examples of other Christians expand my imagination (e.g., Imago Dei in Portland, OR–two stories).
  8. How do I feel about Adventists (and other Christians, and…) who come to different conclusions than I regarding these questions?

With those questions in mind, here are the EG White quotes:

“The necessities of life must be attended to, the sick must be cared for, the wants of the needy must be supplied. He will not be held guiltless who neglects to relieve suffering on the Sabbath. God’s holy rest day was made for man, and acts of mercy are in perfect harmony with its intent. God does not desire His creatures to suffer an hour’s pain that may be relieved upon the Sabbath or any other day.” (The Desire of Ages, p. 207)

“Every working of Christ in miracles was essential, and was to reveal to the world that there was a great work to be done on the Sabbath day for the relief of suffering humanity, but the common work was not to be done. Pleasure seeking, ball playing, swimming, was not a necessity, but a sinful neglect of the sacred day sanctified by Jehovah. Christ did not perform miracles merely to display his power, but always to meet Satan in afflicting suffering humanity. Christ came to our world to meet the needs of the suffering, whom Satan was torturing. —Letter 252, 1906” (Selected Messages, Bk 3, p. 258)

“Divine mercy has directed that the sick and suffering should be cared for; the labor required to make them comfortable is a work of necessity, and no violation of the Sabbath. But all unnecessary work should be avoided.” (Counsels for the Church, p. 267)

“We should always be ready to relieve suffering and to help those in need. In such cases God desires that the knowledge and wisdom He has given us should be put to use.” (Counsels for the Church, p. 268)

“God has given men six days wherein to labor, and He requires that their own work be done in the six working days. Acts of necessity and mercy are permitted on the Sabbath. The sick and suffering are at all times to be cared for; but unnecessary labor is to be strictly avoided…. All should unite to honor God by willing service upon His holy day. “(From Eternity Past, p. 212)

Short version: “Jesus stated that the work of relieving the afflicted was in harmony with the Sabbath law. God’s angels are ever ministering to suffering humanity. ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.’ All the days are God’s, in which to carry out His plans for the human race.” (From Heaven with Love, p. 131)

Long version: “Jesus stated to them that the work of relieving the sufferings of the afflicted was in harmony with the Sabbath law, whether it was relative to the salvation of souls or the removal of physical pain. Such work was in harmony with that of God’s angels, who were ever descending and ascending between Heaven and earth to minister to suffering humanity. Jesus answered their accusations by declaring, ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.’ All days are God’s, in which to carry out his great plans for the human race.” (Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 2, p. 162)

“There will always be duties which have to be performed on the Sabbath for the relief of suffering humanity. This is right, and in accordance with the law of Him who says, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.’ But there is danger of falling into carelessness on this point, and of doing that which it is not positively essential to do on the Sabbath. Unnecessary traveling is done on the Sabbath, with many other things which might be left undone.” (Medical Ministry, p. 50)

“Often physicians are called upon on the Sabbath to minister to the sick, and it is impossible for them to take time for rest and devotion. The Saviour has shown us by His example that it is right to relieve suffering on this day; but physicians and nurses should do no unnecessary work. Ordinary treatment, and operations that can wait, should be deferred till the next day. Let the patients know that physicians must have one day for rest. The Lord says, ‘Verily My Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations.’ Exodus 31:13. Let no man, because he is a physician, feel at liberty to disregard this word of the Lord. He should plan his work so as to obey God’s requirements. He should not travel on the Sabbath except when there is real suffering to be alleviated. When this is the case, it is not a desecration of the Sabbath for physicians to travel upon that day; but ordinary cases should be deferred.” (Medical Ministry, p. 214)

Bonus: “Plead for the warmth of Christ’s love, and then bring it into your discourses; and let no one have occasion to go away and say that the doctrines you believe unfit you for expressing sympathy with suffering humanity—that you have a loveless religion.” (Pastoral Ministry, p. 196)

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