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Jesus was asked in Matthew 9:13 about why he was eating with sinners. His response to the Pharisees was to ask them to go and learn about the meaning of Hosea 6:6 ("I desire mercy and not sacrifice...")

Matthew 9:11,13 (NKJV) And when the Pharisees saw [it,] they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

Again in Matthew 12:7, he was questioned about why he allowed his disciples to rub heads of grain in their hands on the Sabbath. His response was that If they had learnt what Hosea 6:6 means as he had earlier instructed, then they would not have condemned the guiltless!

Matthew 12:2,7 (NKJV) And when the Pharisees saw [it,] they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" "But if you had known what [this] means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Hosea 6:6 itself says:

Hosea:6.6 (NKJV) For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

I feel it must be really important for Jesus to have asked the Pharisees to learn the meaning of this passage on two separate occasions.

What are the layers of meaning associated with Hos 6:6 as regarding the contexts in which Jesus quoted it.

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I am not sure how many layers of meaning there are but the following is what comes to my mind:

The Pharisees and teacher's of the law sat in Moses' seat (Matthew 23:2). They were supposed to know, do and teach what God said, however, some areas of scripture were being over emphasized by them, and others left out.

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Luke 11:42 (KJV)

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Matthew 23:23 (KJV)

If they were following God's word completely, they would have extended mercy to those they were accusing of being 'sinners', like the priest allowing David to eat the hallowed bread (Mark 2:23–28; Matthew 12:1–8; Luke 6:1–5), the priest didn't say "sorry mate, no bread for you."

They might have been offering up the legally correct sacrifices and offerings, but their heart attitude was not right before God - they were actually guilty of not following God (Proverbs 30:10-14).

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. Luke 18:9-14 (KJV)

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Joel 2:13 (KJV)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7 (KJV)

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Hos 6:6 is only one of many places in the OT where the moral/ethical requirements of the law were given priority over the ceremonial requirements. Isa 1:10-17, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22, Hos 6:6, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Jer 6:20, Micah 6:6-8.

In the NT Jesus repeats this a number of times by quoting some of the above texts. In each case He does so to rebuke the Pharisaical attitude that reversed this priority. That is, the Pharisees regarded the ceremonial aspects of the law as greater than the moral and ethical requirements; this reversal of precedence by the Pharasees Jesus roundly condemned.

Here are some examples:

  • Matt 9:9-12 - Jesus condemns the priority of hand washing vs friendliness to strangers and calling of sinners and quotes Hos 6:6 in support of this idea.
  • Matt 12:2-8 - Jesus says that temporal needs of food are more important than the numerous silly Sabbath regulations of the Pharisees and quotes Hos 6:6
  • Matt 12:9-14 contains a similar story showing that healing of people and kindness to animals is more important than minutiae of Sabbath regulations.
  • Matt 23:23, 24 - Jesus again gives priority to morality over ceremonial regulations by quoting Micah 6:6-8
  • Mark 12:33 - Jesus gives greater priority to moral and ethical requirements in the law than the ceremonial aspects.

The Pulpit Commentary notes for Matt 12:7 -

Verse 7. - Matthew only. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I wilt have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless (on the quotation, see Matthew 9:13, note). Had you learned the simple Bible truth that God places the exercise of your moral faculties, particularly those of kindness, above merely external observances, you would not have committed this sin of taking up the position of wrong judges. He traces their error up to its true source, ignorance of the first principles of religion, ignorance of what God really desires.

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