"Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). When you think about Jesus, ironic probably isn't the first word that comes to mind. But in this verse from today's Gospel reading, Jesus uses irony, almost sarcasm, in his response to the Pharisees. They have just criticized Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and he has responded that "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." But then Jesus goes a step beyond explaining his calling as the healer of our souls and he offers a prophetic critique of the Pharisees.
"Go and learn what this means" was a common phrase rabbis would use to instruct their disciples. By turning the phrase around on the Pharisees, Jesus used irony to call attention to their refusal to be instructed by him. He was the Teacher who had the "words of eternal life" (John 6:68). But, in the words of the New Testament scholar Dale Allison, "The Pharisees never go and learn. Always misunderstanding and raising objections, they receive no education" (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary p. 136). Like a good rabbi, Jesus even pointed them toward Scripture which they should already know, in this case quoting from Hosea 6:6. That verse goes on to say God desires "knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." The Pharisees presumed to have knowledge of God, but they remained ignorant. They presumed to instruct others, but failed to listen to the greatest Teacher.
What about us? It's tempting to join in criticizing the Pharisees, but our Teacher instructs us to "first take the log out" of our own eyes (Matthew 7:5). Do we understand what it means that God desires mercy more than sacrifice, and knowledge of him more than offerings? We have one Teacher and we are all students (Matthew 23:8). May we go and learn, as well.
Grace and Peace,