The Lord’s rebuttal makes two points. The second point follows what might at first seem like an odd, if not self-contradictory, line of reasoning. The conclusion exonerates the disciples completely. They are innocent men.
The Lord first establishes their innocence on the basis of their being hungry. According to the precedent of King David himself, hunger trumped legal considerations.
Christ could have left it at that. St. Mark, in fact, only recorded this first point which the Lord made. But Matthew gives us the second point, the one that seems so mystifying.
The Law of Moses not only allows, but in fact requires priests in the Temple to double their labor on the day of rest, since an extra sacrifice is ordered for the Sabbath.
Then Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea. The Lord declares that He does not desire the sacrifice of burnt offerings.
But we can resolve this apparent contradiction by the other assertion that Christ made: “There is something greater than the Temple here.”
In the Temple, priests offered sacrifices to please God. Jews who loved God made pilgrimages to the Temple and offered animals to the priests to sacrifice. To say you are greater than the Temple is to say that you yourself constitute a pleasing offering to God.
A presumptuous thing to say? Certainly would be presumptuous for any humble sinner to say this. Would that I could claim to be a Temple where a pleasing sacrifice is offered to God! But, alas, I am selfish and disobedient, so my soul does not emit a pleasing aroma to heaven.
But the innocent Lamb, Who was never anything other than a Temple of perfect love and obedience, Who offered at every moment of His pilgrim life the sacrifice of undivided devotion: He could claim to be greater than the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Lord did not, in fact, contradict Himself in this second point. God desires mercy. Whose mercy? Well, first and foremost, His own. Mercy begins with God. He was the first to be aggrieved, so He must be the first to forgive. In fact, even before the first act of injustice, the Creator had already shown His infinite mercy by making us out of nothing for no benefit of His, but only for our benefit.
This infinite mercy of God is the perfect sacrifice of His Son. The Son offered Himself on the cross, in an odor of infinite sweetness, not for His sake, but for ours.
We sinners have no worthy sacrifice of our own to offer. We do much better to worry about begging pardon of those we have aggrieved and forgiving and forgetting the offenses we have suffered.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no more Temple, no more priests, no more holy bread, and no more Lord’s Day. No. The Temple is in heaven–and here on earth, wherever people believe in Jesus. The priests offer Christ’s Body and Blood, which is the bread by which we live forever. And the Lord’s Day is the eternal Sabbath that will never end.