Summary: Jesus shows what it means to love mercy and not sacrifice when He works a miracle on the Sabbath.
The prophet Ezekiel lived during the time of the exile and he was instructed to remind Israel of their history. God delivered them from Egypt:
I gave them my statutes, and shewed them my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them. 12Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. 13But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness: they walked not in my statutes, and they despised my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; and my sabbaths they greatly polluted: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them. 14But I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, in whose sight I brought them out. 15Yet also I lifted up my hand unto them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands; 16Because they despised my judgments, and walked not in my statutes, but polluted my sabbaths: for their heart went after their idols. 17Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness. 18But I said unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols: 19I am the LORD your God; walk in my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; 20And hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the LORD your God. 21Notwithstanding the children rebelled against me: they walked not in my statutes, neither kept my judgments to do them, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; they polluted my sabbaths: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness. 22Nevertheless I withdrew mine hand, and wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted in the sight of the heathen, in whose sight I brought them forth. 23I lifted up mine hand unto them also in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the heathen, and disperse them through the countries; 24Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. 25Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; 26And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD. 27Therefore, son of man, speak unto the house of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me. 28For when I had brought them into the land, for the which I lifted up mine hand to give it to them, then they saw every high hill, and all the thick trees, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering: there also they made their sweet savour, and poured out there their drink offerings. 29Then I said unto them, What is the high place whereunto ye go? And the name whereof is called Bamah unto this day. 30Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Are ye polluted after the manner of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom after their abominations? (Ez. 20:7-30).
The Sabbath was much more than just a simple day of rest; it was a sign between God and Israel which showed their special relationship with Him. If you read the first five commandments in Exodus 20 you’ll see “have no other gods before me,” “make no graven image,” “don’t bow down to them,” “don’t take my name in vain,” and “keep the Sabbath.” To break the Sabbath was to reject God’s sanctification (being set apart as holy) and to follow a false god. And so when Israel came out of Babylon they were very serious about keeping the Sabbaths because they didn’t want to go back into exile.
Because of this they tried to define certain things within the law. For instance, we read in Leviticus 11:41 that every creeping thing shall be an abomination and shall not be eaten. Well, by the time of Jesus they literally put strainers on their cups to prevent accidentally ingesting a gnat. But Jesus condemns them for their hypocrisy saying they instead swallow a camel! (Mt. 23:24). In fact, that whole passage is woe unto them for being hypocrites who appear clean and washed on the outside but are full of everything rotting and terrible on the inside.