There is a tension between the need to obey all that God commanded us, and the reality of human nature. Some people, after all, are just rebels. If they are restricted in any way, or for any reason, they chafe against the restraints in open disobedience. Others are so zealous in their insistence on obedience that they become unsympathetic toward any who falter in any way. Some in this category interpret obedience so narrowly that it is nearly impossible for anyone, except themselves, to be obedient. This is where the Pharisees were during the Lord’s ministry on the earth.
On at least two occasions they complained about the actions of the Lord and of His disciples. Once, when the Lord attended a dinner at Matthew’s house, they condemned Him for associating with “sinners” (Mt. 9:10-13). On another occasion, the disciples plucked heads of grain and ate them as they passed through some grain fields on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-7). The Pharisees considered this to be a violation of the Sabbath prohibition against work, and condemned them for it. The Lord’s reaction in both instances shows us that there is more to our relationship with God than check-list obedience.
In each situation the Lord quoted scripture, saying, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice”, and told the Pharisees that if they understood what this meant, they would not be so condemning. Had these teachers of the Law understood the scriptures, they would have known that it was their attitude, not the Lord’s or the disciples’ actions, that violated God’s will. They had become so arrogant in their adherence to the Law that they had forgotten God’s grace and mercy.
This is where the tension arises for us. We recognize that we must obey God’s word in order to be right with Him. From the earliest times God has required this. This principle was so important that Moses drew special attention to it in Deuteronomy. He told Israel that they must diligently keep God’s commandments, saying, “So you shall observe to do just as the Lord you God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left” (Deut. 5:32). He repeated this command in Deut. 17:20 and in Deut. 28:14.
There is no question that this principle is true because even the Lord stressed it in His own teaching. In Mt. 7:21, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” He underscored this truth in vs. 22-23 by telling of well-intentioned, sincerely religious people who would be turned away at judgment because they had failed to obey God’s will.
Even so, the scriptures are also clear that we are incapable of perfectly obeying God’s will. Here is where His grace and mercy come in. This is what the Lord tried to get the Pharisees to understand. None of us can so perfectly keep God’s will as to earn our salvation. We all depend upon His grace and mercy to be saved. Therefore we must treat each other with compassion and mercy as we try to obey God’s will.
Compassion toward those who sin does not mean that we condone or excuse their sin. It simply means that we recognize that without compassion no one will be saved. Having received God’s grace and mercy ourselves, we cannot withhold it from anyone who is seeking God’s way. In Jas. 2:13 James said, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy”. Therefore, let us be compassionate and merciful toward each other in all that we do.