Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9:13)
Jesus justifies what he does with tax collectors and sinners quoting from Hosea 6:6 as based on the Septuagint. The Hebrew has “Indeed, I am more pleased with hesed rather than sacrifice; with knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” The Hebrew hesed can include a wide range of meanings (loyalty, generosity, grace, mercy) but the Greek narrowed its meaning to “mercy” in a statement that says: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice; the recognition of God rather than holocausts.
The quotation as it stands in Jesus’ response to his interlocutors, is also a rebuke. It is as if he were saying: “Why don’t you look up Hosea 6:6 so that you can understand me.” In its context, the phrase is a rebuke made by God against the insincerity of Israel. They think that they have God already figured out (Hos. 6:1-3). But God knows his people well: their love (“eleos” in Greek, “hesed” in Hebrew) is like the mist — it vanishes with the rising of the sun. They break the covenant, the priests are murderers and they worship idols (Hos. 6:7-10). The key however is “knowledge/recognition of God” which is in parallel with “hesed” (love). What God wants is a love that derives from the knowledge of God that Israel is supposed to have.
The Pharisees think that they are being loyal (another nuance of “hesed”) to the Mosaic Law when they disapprove of Jesus’ mixing it up with tax collectors and sinners. But Jesus knows the Father in heaven more than they do. He wants mercy, a mercy that is based on knowing Him. The Pharisees think they know Him but they don’t. Jesus quotes only the first half of Hos. 6:6 and leaves it to the Pharisees to think about the second part: “knowledge/recognition of God more than holocausts.”
Those who think they know God are always in danger of making their assumptions become the rule. The Pharisees became stuck with one meaning of “hesed” and forgot that there was another meaning, that of God’s grace and mercy. Jesus came for the sick, not those who think they are on the right with God or who think they already know Him. Like the Pharisees, we need to review our sources and undergo conversion. Augustine once wrote that if one thinks he has God already figured out, then it is not God.
Another thing to get from this passage is that Jesus Himself is the definitive revelation of God. His gestures towards sinners is the commentary on Hosea 6:6. The Pharisees hadn’t figured it out then, but we already know that it is so. And so, more than for the Pharisees in Luke’s gospel, the words of Jesus applies to us, to me, most of all. On October 9, I am going to listen to a proposal for a ministry among a specific group of young people. When that moment comes, I know which Gospel passage I will use as a guide for evaluating the proposal to be made.
Lord, there are many people who are like the tax collectors and sinners you met when you were still among us. Today, we also have young people who are bereft of the guidance they should have from their parents. They are lost not because of the fault of their parents but because of the alienating circumstances in which they find themselves. Help me and my co-workers be your hands and feet as we gather them in and help them be at-home in your Family.