Jesus says if the Pharisees knew what the title of this post means, then they would not have condemned the guiltless (Matthew 12:7).
A qualification up front: some would use this phrase to look down their nose at a person serious about holiness. “God wants mercy not strict obedience, man. Lighten up.” Jesus is not providing ground for people to break His commands. He’s not tipping his hat to the guy who wants to skip church to go to Disney World on the Lord’s Day singing about mercy triumphing over puritanism.
How do we know Jesus is not doing this sort of thing? Because the Pharisees were condemning the guiltless not the guilty. Jesus and his disciples were not breaking any of God’s commands (but they were kicking over some of the Pharisees’).
Yet, here’s the thing; the guy playing church-hooky at Disney and the finger-pointing Pharisee have the same problem. They’re two peas in a pod. These sworn enemies are actually jiving to the same tune. How? Both are living for themselves. One is walking away from duty; the other is standing on top of duty so as to be seen by more passersby.
Jesus on the other hand desires mercy and not sacrifice. That is, he does a work of mercy as the disciples plucked and ate grain on the Sabbath. That’s what the Sabbath is for… the good of man (Mark 2:27). Doing good is very much lawful on the Sabbath. This point flew over the head of the Pharisees, not because they were too strict about loving God and others, but because they boasted in their offerings to God.
The application then is not, “Oh, now I can relax the law of God and do what feels good to me and others.” That’s the way to be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19). Instead, we are to ensure that our lives are lived out of love to God and love to man. We must not only perform the ritual, we must perform the ritual in love and mercy. We must not only go through the motions (there is nothing wrong with the motions), we must ensure there is mercy and compassion within giving life to the motions.
This is a high calling, indeed. Yet we need not fret. Jesus is our bread. He has fed us and will go on feeding us with more mercy which we can then give toward others. And he will feed us with this mercy… even on the Sabbath.