Eating grain on the Sabbath
Pp Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 6:6-11
1. The reference to the life of David
2. The reference to a Temple practice
3. Something greater than the Temple
4. Mercy and Lordship
Healing the incapacitated on the Sabbath
2. Anger and Destruction
These opening fourteen verses of chapter twelve are really two separate incidents which have been put together by the writer of Matthew as they both deal with opposition that Jesus received over His attitude towards the Jewish sabbath (that is, Saturday). Whereas the former deals with an action which the disciples were observed doing and which Jesus rises to defend (after all, the actions of followers would naturally be taken to be a reflection of what their Master agreed with if the Master didn’t rebuke them and instruct them correctly), the latter deals specifically with a healing which took place at Jesus’ hands before a congregation of Israelites present in the synagogue.
It’s best, therefore, that we keep these two incidents together as they illustrate two unique aspects of the Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus’ concept of what ‘sabbath’ meant. For a more detailed discussion of ‘sabbath’ as a command of God to the nation of Israel and of its implications for the christian, see my notes here.
In both Mark and Luke, the parallel passages for both these incidents follow on immediately from one another so that one gets the impression that they’re meant to be taken together. Matthew’s phrase which spans the two (Mtw 12:9) that
‘...He went on from there and entered their synagogue’
and Mark 3:1’s
‘...He entered the synagogue...’
would naturally be read as if the second incident took place on the same day as the first, but Luke 6:6 makes it plain that the two records are being put together only for convenience sake when the author there writes that it was
‘On another sabbath...’
However, all three writers are correct in putting these incidents together so that the reader can compare the attitude of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ sabbath actions and, more especially, that they might witness two different aspects of what Jesus understood as the fulfilment of a ‘day of rest’.
Matthew notably places the two incidents at the start of a passage which begins to highlight the increasing problems which Jesus experienced amongst the religious leaders of His day and the writer will go on to put together the Pharisees’ denunciation of His deliverance of the demonic (Mtw 12:22-37) and their demand for a sign that they might believe Him (Mtw 12:38-45 - as if the raising of the dead wasn’t a sign enough - Mtw 9:18-26), before concluding with the record of the approach of Jesus’ mother and brothers (Mtw 12:46-50) who came to Him on another occasion because of the things which they’d heard that the people had been saying about Him (Mark 3:21 - this verse may also be the reason for the parallel account in Mark 3:31-35 even though they sit some ten verses apart).
Persecution, although not a main subject previously, has not been far from Matthew’s thoughts prior to this chapter. Leaving the birth narrative to one side, the author has already hinted at unrest in Mtw 9:3 where he records that
‘...some of the scribes said to themselves “This man is blaspheming”’
in connection with the bestowal of the forgiveness of sins upon the man who was being lowered through the roof to be healed, and the Pharisees’ questioning of the disciples as to why Jesus ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Mtw 9:11) was hardly of mere academic interested when posed. Even the disciples of John’s question regarding fasting and feasting in Mtw 9:14 seems to be not wholly without the prompting of the Pharisees.
The reader may, of course, not have noticed the inference of opposition in each of these three Scriptures, but the Pharisees’ declaration in Mtw 9:34 that Jesus
‘...cast out demons by the prince of demons’
can’t go unmissed and the dark clouds which have been gathering in the preceding passages burst on the scene here suddenly, only to be outworked in more detail in Matthew chapter 12.
Here, then, in Matthew’s Gospel, starts the author’s record of the opposition which came through the established religious leadership of Jesus’ day. Even so, the objections that are subsequently raised against Him (Mtw 11:16-19) are not seemingly restricted to be applied by just the religious leaders (see the question in Mtw 12:10, for instance), though we saw that the previous passage (Mtw 11:25-30) cut at the very foundation of the Pharisaic belief and interpretation system and it was naturally inevitable that opposition should spring out of that observation and because of the incompatibility of the two ways of serving God.
Indeed, where there was a contrast between religion and revelation, between tradition and spiritual life, there sprang from it the persecution which came about as a consequence of the impossibility that both ways of approach to God could be harmonised. Where Jesus sees revelation as the way, religion steps in to oppose when it contradicts clearly the interpretation of Scripture that it’s formulated.
Mtw 11:25-30, therefore, provides a fitting backdrop to the persecution which is about to fall upon both Jesus and the disciples for, in shielding their minds to the possibility that their way of serving God could be wrong, the religious leaders must necessarily oppose the true move of God on the grounds that it is against the way which God desires men and women to seek Him.
Although Jesus had spoken of the ‘rest’ from religious strivings which should be a part of a simple reception of the gift of God, the scribes and Pharisees saw the ‘rest of God’ demonstrated in the weekly observance of the Sabbath as something that had to be worked hard at to the point of eliminating what peace a man might receive by ceasing from his labours so that he might fulfil the requirements of the scribes’ interpretation of the Law (not the Law itself, it must be understood, but the scribes’ interpretation of it). As Matfran comments, these two passages follow appropriately after Jesus’ words concerning spiritual rest
‘...showing the rest brought about by Jesus’ ‘easy yoke’ in contrast with Pharisaic legalism...Pharisaic concern for the detailed regulation of religious duty was in danger, however, of putting the rules before the good purpose for which they were given’
The Jewish observance of the sabbath was not limited solely to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and a couple of examples are evident even from the times which preceded them. In I Maccabees 2:31-38, we read of an incident where certain Jews who had refused to obey the king’s commands to sacrifice against the Mosaic Law were confronted by an army which urged them to fulfil the king’s commands.
Even though they obviously wouldn’t have offered sacrifice even if the day hadn’t been a sabbath, their response was to state (I Macc 2:34)
‘...We will not come forth, neither will we do the king’s commandment, to profane the sabbath day’
so that the army attacked and killed their ranks while they didn’t so much as lift a stone against them because they felt that to do so would be to profane the sabbatical regulations. We probably have our own interpretation of what we would have done in a similar situation and the quote is not meant to either justify or condemn their action, only to note that the Jews took sabbath observance with great seriousness.
Similarly, in the siege of Jerusalem under Pompey, the Roman armies were able to lay out their military weapons without any hindrance from the inhabitants of the city because they did so on the sabbath in preparation for the following day, the Sunday, when they began the siege (Antiquities 14.4.3). Josephus notes, however, the honouring of the sabbath by the Romans that they refused to attack until the sabbath had ended but whether this actually took place throughout the siege is far from certain.
Judging by the rules and regulations recorded for us in Shabbath in the Mishnah, the retention of sabbatical information alone for the Jew must have been phenomenal (leaving aside the other regulations which defined most aspects of Jewish life) - even more problematical must it have been when it came to trying to apply them all to everyday life and, where two conflicted, what was the Jew supposed to do?
Matmor cites Shabbath 10:3 as one example of the difficulty the Jew would have had of even remembering what was both right and wrong to do and some of the regulations contained in the Mishnah are of equal absurdity to say the least. For, if a person wished to get anything out (I read the passage as meaning from a garment though the final sentence refers to postal messengers who would extract letters from some sort of pouch), he could take it out behind him but not in front of him (Shabbath 10:4). Even if it had been put in the front, so long as it moved to the back and was taken out from this place, he wasn’t guilty of profaning the sabbath. Likewise, had it been put in the back and it moved to the front and was thus extracted from the front, this did profane the day.
Women, however, who wore undergarments, couldn’t take anything out from them either from the front or the back because
‘...it is likely to move round’
So the woman was stuck with whatever was in her underwear until the sabbath was over when she could then remove what she’d put there before the sabbath had begun. But where was this all going to end? What if the object fell out? What if the person opened one exit and let it drop? Did that constitute ‘getting the item out’?
As soon as legal definition is needed to fulfil the service of God, so the need arises to adequately define what is required in each and every situation that could possibly occur and it was this that undermined the freedom and rest which had been originally intended as part of the sabbath regulations in the Mosaic Law.
In Shabbath 7:2, the Jews recorded thirty-nine definitions of what constituted work, some of which may seem fairly absurd to us today (such as ‘writing two letters’ - and, in today’s day and age, would ‘writing two letters’ include storing them on a word processor even if they weren’t printed off? Or is it the actual act of composing them that was prohibited? And supposing one didn’t add the ‘yours sincerely’ at the end of the letter which made it incomplete, was that considered to be a letter written or just a letter started?) but each of which was designed to categorise the restrictions which were placed upon those serving God that they might fulfil the day’s requirements.
If the Jews had left it at these thirty-nine definitions, the religious Jew might have found some rest for their lives, but even in these, they showed themselves to have gone too far for they had singularly failed to perceive the true intention of the Law regarding the sabbath which Jesus spoke about in the two passages we’ll shortly consider.
One shouldn’t think, however, that the controversy over the sabbath regulations between Jesus and the Pharisees was one of a misinterpretation of what constituted ‘work’ on the Saturday of the week. Jesus isn’t concerned with laying down rules and regulations that His followers should follow in fulfilment of the Law. As Matmor states, Jesus
‘...held that they had the wrong idea of the sabbath altogether. It was a day for honouring God...It was a day for refreshing people...But for the Pharisees it was primarily a day for keeping the regulations that expressed their desire to honour God’
If there had just been a disagreement over what constituted work on the sabbath, Jesus and the Pharisees might well have found reconciliation when they confronted one another but, as it was, Jesus’ understanding of the sabbath’s purpose was radically and fundamentally different and He stripped away from it any regulation which burdened the day for the person who sought to serve and follow after God.
The two subsequent passages speak of one specific aspect of interpretation on which Jesus and the Pharisees were diametrically opposed. Both in Mtw 12:1-8 and 12:9-14, the issue at stake concerns the true meaning of the Sabbath and less upon what type of actions were agreeable to God. Even though Jesus defends the actions that are being condemned, He does so not on the basis of what is both right and wrong to do but upon the correct fulfilment of the sabbath and that the action, of itself, doesn’t conflict with that correct fulfilment.
Jesus is seen not as One who argues on the grounds on which the Pharisees would argue - that is, as to what constitutes ‘work’ according to their interpretation of the Scriptures - but according to, firstly, other Scripture which negates their arguments and which goes on to show that even their own arguments are negated by other lawful practice and, secondly, that their personal actions on the sabbath which safeguarded their own livelihood and prosperity should have wakened them to the justifiable act of healing an invalid.
Both these situations which transpired were sufficient enough for the religious leaders to question their own errant interpretation of the Law but, instead, standing fast on their religious practices, condemned Jesus because He failed to conform Himself to their beliefs.
If ever there was a case for the religious in today’s society to re-evaluate their own interpretations of Scripture it’s here. Not that the foundational principles of Christianity should be undermined which are plain enough - but that our own traditional viewpoints and practices which have been built up over the course of many years need to be seriously challenged in order that we might not oppose God Himself when He chooses to move in our midst.
That the religious were wrong in their interpretation was not the problem here - had they realised the error of their ways, they would have found opportunity to turn to Jesus to receive both healing and forgiveness - but that they were unwilling to examine their own beliefs to come to a realisation of the Truth.
Eating grain on the Sabbath
We should notice, firstly, that the action of Jesus’ disciples in plucking the heads off the grain and eating wasn’t something that was evil in and of itself, even though, today, we may raise objections on the grounds of theft or of reducing the farmer’s ‘yield per acre’.
In the OT, legislation was recorded which justified the disciples’ actions and which gave them a valid legal precedent - if, of course, they had been all that bothered about fulfilling the minutest requirements of a written code. Deut 23:24-25 instructed the Israelites that, when they entered their neighbour’s vineyard
‘...you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your vessel. When you go into your neighbour’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing grain’
The principle seems plain enough here. The farmer wasn’t going to lose even a significant amount of his crop if a traveller was to take an apple to sustain him as he passed by a field when out on the open road and neither was the local who fancied a few grapes to refresh him as he walked from one place to another.
Therefore, the Israelites were allowed to eat a little from the crop that was maturing so long as they didn’t go get their combine harvester and reap the field! The provision was, surely, aimed at meeting the need of the Israelites and of comforting them when they found themselves hungry - a sort of ‘snack on the move’ provision which would probably have done away with most of our Motorway service stations had it been part of our legislation today - which would probably have been no bad thing.
So the disciples’ actions were fully justifiable by recourse to the OT legislation. Significantly, though, Jesus doesn’t argue on these grounds when approached by the Pharisees. He could have appealed to the OT legislation and reasoned that there was no qualifying condition in the Law so that it must be applicable to every day of every week - but to do such a thing would have been to bring the argument into the Pharisees’ court and to reason that there were actions that were both allowable and permissible on the subject. Rather, as we will see, Jesus argues a totally different foundation upon which the sabbath should be assessed.
Having seen that any present day objections which could have been raised against the disciples’ actions were unjustified by reference to OT Scripture, we need to go on to realise that this wasn’t the Pharisees’ reason for their objection to the disciples’ actions, either. Rather, they objected on the grounds (Mtw 12:2) that they were
‘...doing what is not lawful on the sabbath’
This partly goes back to one of the ten commandments though it also goes far beyond what that ordinance actually said, as we shall see. In Ex 20:9-10, Moses recorded one of the commandments as
‘Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates’
and the act of plucking the heads of grain naturally constituted - in the Pharisees’ eyes - work. This is obvious by a brief reading of Shabbath 7:2 previously cited in the introduction above, which reads that
‘The main classes of work are forty save one...reaping...threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops...’
and the disciples probably were seen to have fallen foul of the Rabbinic interpretation in at least two ways. Firstly, there was the act of removing the heads of grain from off the sheaves, an act which would have been paralleled by the Pharisees as an act of ‘reaping’. Secondly, the outer casing of the wheat kernel needed to be removed before the grain could be eaten (Luke 6:1) and this was possibly also paralleled in any one of the other three definitions which I quoted from the Mishnaic passage. Perhaps also the entire act of collecting the grain was seen as the preparation of food, something which had to be done before the sabbath began.
Therefore, the disciples had most definitely broken the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law by their act of reaping a handful of grain for their immediate need - and Matthew is careful to make sure that his readers understand that there was human need involved here for he records that the disciples ‘were hungry’, giving a justifiable reason for their subsequent action and not letting the reader infer that they may have ‘reaped’ some grain simply to confront the religious leaders. Besides, it may be correct to say that the disciples were unaware that they’d done anything wrong until the matter came to a head, so complex are the regulations contained in the Mishnah that it would be easy to think one is staying within them when one is way outside.
Because Jesus, obviously aware that the disciples were doing this (note that the religious leaders don’t condemn Jesus for doing the same so it’s more than likely that He hadn’t put His hand to eat from the crop growing in the field), hadn’t rebuked the disciples and instructed them in the correct observance of the sabbath, He immediately becomes culpable for their actions and is therefore directly reprimanded for what has just transpired. The Pharisees may even have expected Jesus’ response to be one of rebuke once the matter had been brought to His attention but, instead, He defends His followers by an appeal to Scripture.
The principle which seems to be invoked by Jesus here is that human need always outweighs any observance of the sabbath because it was made for man and not the other way round (Mk 2:27) and Jesus goes on to use two specific Scriptures from the OT to counter the scribal argument. Mathag comments that
‘Jesus’ view of the sabbath in this and the following pericope is seen to be more lenient than that of the Pharisees’
but we should remember that we aren’t specifically looking at the one who will interpret the requirements of the sabbath with the greatest freedom - that isn’t the point of the passages here recorded - but who will interpret the requirements of the Law correctly seeing as the foundational position of both the religious leaders and of Jesus are fundamentally different. We aren’t just looking at a correct understanding of what can and can’t be done.
Finally, the Pharisees did have a qualifying sentence in the Mishnah in Yoma 8:6 which stated that
‘...whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath’
but, as will be seen below, there was a vast array of qualifying statements and instructions which were taken as superseding and undermining the legislation of the Saturday which make this regulation somewhat in need of qualification and not to be regarded as an absolute statement that these were the only grounds for the overriding of the sabbath regulations.
1. The reference to the life of David
Firstly, David, a man after God’s own heart (I Sam 13:14) and of whom it’s recorded that he wholly followed God all the days of his life except for one specific incident (I Kings 15:5), ate of the bread of the presence (a series of twelve loaves laid out on a sabbath before the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle) which it was not lawful for him to eat - only the priests had that right (Lev 24:9). Even worse than a sabbath violation, however, was David’s actions for, whereas the Pharisees were objecting to their own interpretation of Law, David transgressed what was plain from the Scriptural text.
What the incident showed, however, was that David’s need took precedence over the religious observance of the Mosaic Law, not just sabbath observance.
Of course, this should come to us as ‘shocking’ every bit as much as it must have done to the Pharisees. That one man was allowed to plainly contradict the Mosaic regulations for the sake of personal need cuts away, we feel, at the very foundations of religious experience. Even more so, when one realises that David also seemed to flaunt the legislation of Deut 17:14-20 which required the king who was to be set over the nation to (Deut 17:17)
‘...not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away...’
I Kings 15:5 cited above notes that David pleased God in everything he did except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite and we must accept that even a lawbreaker can still find acceptance before God through the things which he does, because righteousness comes apart from works of the Law.
Even through the one incident in which it’s recorded that God was displeased with him, the full weight of the Law still didn’t fall upon him (I Samuel chapters 11 and 12) when David contrived a situation in which he murdered Uriah so that he could cover his sin. Here, the legislation of Lev 24:17, which reads
‘He who kills a man shall be put to death’
was never applied. The Law made no provision for repentance following transgression to be able to annul the penalty which was to be measured out to the transgressor - see, for instance Joshua chapter 7 where, even though he repented (Joshua 7:20), Achan still had to pay for his misdemeanour with his life (Joshua 7:25-26).
But David found acceptance before God, not only that the requirements of the Law might not fall upon him but that, even in some of the areas where he clearly transgressed the Law, he was still justified by God and was said to have pleased him.
Jesus isn’t arguing with the Pharisees here on the grounds that transgressors will be blessed of God (and I’ve only highlighted a couple of other incidents in David’s life to bring home the point more forcibly that God dealt with men and women in mercy, not with legalism as the Pharisees interpreted Him to do) but that the personal need of men and women isn’t annulled by legislation which was designed to protect them. And the implication of the incident is along the lines of what Matmor writes when he comments that
‘...if these men’s hunger set aside a divine regulation without blame, how much more should the hunger of Jesus’ disciples set aside a rabbinical rule!’
So, from the lesser to the greater (as will be emphasised in Mtw 12:6 - see below) - if David broke a direct commandment of God and God didn’t condemn him for it, why should the disciples be condemned for breaking only an interpretation which had been based on a commandment?
2. The reference to a Temple practice
Having just referred to the bread of the presence, the following reference to an unspecified commandment (Mtw 12:5 - only Matthew records this saying in this context) may refer to Lev 24:8 which reads that
‘Every sabbath day Aaron shall set [the bread of the presence] in order before the Lord continually on behalf of the people of Israel as a covenant for ever’
thus breaking the day of solemn rest by performing work commanded by Mosaic Law. After all, the flour had to be prepared for the loaves into a dough which was then baked (presumably, this had to take place also on the sabbath though the OT doesn’t appear to define just when they could be prepared) and this was similar in operation to the disciples who had similarly used food stuffs on the sabbath to alleviate their hunger.
Alternatively, it may be a reference to the rite of circumcision that Jesus spoke of in John 7:22-24 after He had healed a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years on another sabbath (Matfran notes other possible identifications for the incident but these two will suffice here - there are probably examples beyond measure if we were to look extensively through the OT Law). The priests, in order to keep the Law, circumcised newly-born children on the eighth day after birth. But by working on the sabbath, they also broke the Mosaic Law that they were trying to keep.
Jesus isn’t condemning the priests for circumcising the child on the sabbath (or for whatever occasion merited the comment), but He’s speaking against the Pharisees who justified this need of the Mosaic Law to be fulfilled but who refused to accept Jesus’ teaching that human need outweighed their religious interpretation of the observance of the day of rest. Indeed, as Matmor notes, the word translated ‘profane’ is
‘...a strong and startling word...’
and is meant to try and wake the religious leaders up to the full implications of the work that is being performed in the name of God. If such profanation is justifiable, why isn’t plucking a few ears of corn from a field to satisfy one’s hunger?
Human need, reasons Jesus, must always override religious need - but note those words carefully. We are talking here about ‘need’ and not ‘want’. Jesus was only teaching that a man’s needs take priority, not his desires and wishes. We must note also that ‘need’ has also been used in modern day society to justify the transgression of national law (and the national law which also reflects God’s Law as revealed in the OT) through such acts as burglary and petty crime.
Neither of the two incidents which Jesus deals with represent a situation where anyone suffers personal injury or loss. The farmer who had some of his grain removed to satisfy some Jews’ hunger already knew that a minute percentage of his crop would be taken in this way and the healing of the incapacitated person in the following story impinged upon no one save the person himself and certainly didn’t bring harm to anyone.
It’s worthy to note here that even the Mishnah gives permission for the sabbath to be violated when service to God in connection with the Temple is being performed. Erubin 10:14 specifically says that
‘...they may draw water with a wheel on the Sabbath from the Golah-cistern and from the Great Cistern...’
and Pesahim 6:1 (with further details in 6:2) outlines
‘...acts pertaining to the Passover-offering [which] override the Sabbath: slaughtering it, tossing the blood, scraping its entrails and burning its fat pieces...’
Therefore, even the additional regulations which had been added to Scripture by the Pharisees were seen to take priority over and above the requirements of the sabbath to rest and, had they even considered their own position, they should have been able to conceive of God as being concerned for human need even when what they’d defined as ‘work’ was being performed.
Maybe more poignant to the current story is Menahoth 10:3 where the command is plain that the reaping of the sheaf of the first fruits of barley for waving in the temple before the Lord at the festival of first fruits (Lev 23:9-14) was to override the sabbath regulations. This, of course, parallels almost identically with the reaping of the grains by the disciples to satisfy personal need. It seems, then, that, although the Pharisees were prepared to override legislation which ‘met the needs of God’ so to speak, they weren’t willing to allow much in the way of anything which ‘met the needs of man’, though as Jesus pointed out to them as recorded by Mark on this same occasion (Mark 2:27)
‘...The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’
3. Something greater than the Temple
Jesus’ explanation in Mtw 12:6 makes an appeal to the Pharisees’ reasoning by noting that
‘...something greater than the Temple is here’
That is, if the Temple sacrifices and service can be accepted as transgressing some of the Mosaic legislation that is accepted by them as unbreakable, the new revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (the Greek which is translated by ‘something greater’ is neuter rather than masculine so the reference appears to be to an object or concept rather than meant to be taken to refer to Christ Himself. It’s use in Mtw 12:41-42 where the neuter word is normally taken to refer to Jesus, however, may cut against the certainty of this interpretation) which brings both healing and forgiveness (something which the legislation could never do - it could only instruct on what should be done to remove the incapacity such as leprosy and condemn the transgressor when a breach of the Law had been made) shouldn’t be rejected simply because it doesn’t fit in with their own personal exposition of Scripture.
Indeed, more importantly, the greater should be served by the inferior and not the other way round and this is relevant for the first example Jesus cites of David eating the bread of the presence. If, in the less important times, God allowed transgression of the Law for human need, so the principle is established that, when the perfect comes, personal need will be an integral part of it.
Moreover, the scribal interpretations shouldn’t be used to place boundaries around the new manifestation of the Kingdom on earth, but fade into the background and become subservient to it.
Jesus’ new teaching, therefore, is being proclaimed not as an added extra to what they already have but as the foundational principle of all correct relationships between God and man - as such, it couldn’t do anything but undermine the religion of the Jewish religious leaders.
Matfran states that
‘In Jesus and His ministry a new work of God, transcending the temple ritual of the OT, has begun. As the temple has been the focus of God’s presence among His people, so now it is in Jesus and His new community that God is to be found’
and the pulling away of what is formal and immovable, from something which is geographically central to what has become mobile, must have represented a distinct challenge to the Pharisees for they would immediately have realised that they would no longer have been able to control it like they had done in times past. And Jesus’ words indicated that what He spoke concerning was not to come about at some future time but was a present reality now.
Something extra may also be hinted at here by the reference to the Temple for, as the NT makes plain, believers have become the living temples of God, the structures in which God dwells and moves around (I Cor 3:16-17). If that geographically fixed structure could be justified in breaking the legal requirements of the Law for the sake of service to God, how much more might the living temples find the need to break with a legal requirement that they might be obedient to the revealed will of God to themselves?
Certainly, no one would have seemingly been able to have made the connection before the resurrection and ascension, but there may have been more in Jesus’ words here than we would naturally take them to have conveyed to those people who’d heard Him speak that side of the work on the cross.
4. Mercy and Lordship
Jesus’ phrase (Mtw 12:7) that
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’
has already been used in Mtw 9:13 where it sits as a response to the Pharisaic objections that Jesus was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. I dealt with that phrase on a previous web page where I noted that
‘Jesus is shown...to be the One who comes to forgive and accept in God’s mercy whereas their man-made religion is set against that - to reject and divide up the Israelites through conformity to a written code’
and the implications of the phrase retains its meaning here. Just as Jesus adds a note of explanation in the previous passage (‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners’), Jesus also adds that, had they understood the phrase, coming, as it does, from Hosea 6:6, they
‘...would not have condemned the guiltless’
justifying the disciples’ actions and pronouncing the foundational interpretations of service to God by the Pharisees as being inerrant and unrepresentative of the will of God for mankind.
The teachers of the Law who should have naturally ‘known’ the Scriptures were shown by Jesus to be people who had failed in their most important qualification. In the words of a later NT Scripture aimed at believers (Heb 5:12), they should, by the time of Jesus’ arrival on earth, have been accurate teachers - but they needed
‘...some one to teach [them] again the first principles of God’s word...’
Jesus is certainly not saying that men and women can regularly do whatever they please against God’s will and still find acceptance before God continually, but that, because one of the underlying principles of the Law is meeting human need, the disciples’ action is naturally acceptable whereas their rules and regulations which restrict a person’s need by conformity to a written code does not. As Mattask also notes
‘The absence of such mercy cannot be made good by the offering of sacrifices however numerous’
and Matfran that
‘God cannot be quoted in support of the attitude which condemns before it understands, which puts demands before consideration’
The religious leaders are more conscientious to be faultless before a man-made series of regulations than they are about being obedient from the heart to the reason for the Law and to the Person who spoke it into being.
Jesus could have left His teaching there but He goes on to state unequivocally (Mtw 12:8) that
‘...the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath’
where it would have been obvious to everyone present that the title ‘Son of man’ was meant to be taken as a personal reference seeing as the author of Matthew has already recorded it on His lips on four previous occasions (Mtw 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19), three of which were addressed to the crowds who would have been gathered around Him.
Jesus is stating, therefore, that He has been given authority over the sabbath, a saying which elevated His own interpretation of the requirements of God towards man concerning the sabbath over and above the religious leaders’.
That was quite some statement to make and one that we would do well not to gloss over - Jesus elevates His own teaching immediately above the religious authority of His day by insisting that He has sovereignty which surpasses theirs. This can only be explained by recourse to Jesus’ previous words in Mtw 11:25-30 where we saw that He claimed that He had received a perfect revelation of the person of God and that, as such, He was in the unique position to disclose the full requirements of God upon men and women’s lives.
If such a statement is accepted, Jesus’ statement here in Mtw 12:8 is not a problem for He alone must be able to correctly interpret the Law and so apply it to human lives. The Pharisees, who had striven to understand the sabbath on the basis of man’s obligation to a written commandment, had singularly failed to arrive at a true understanding of the sabbath’s intention, seeing as it had been given to man for his benefit and not for a hard and industrious work which could only ultimately reap condemnation (Mark 2:27), because they had failed to define it by a revelation of the true nature of God.
Some commentators take the phrase ‘Son of man’ here to mean nothing more than ‘man’ where the interpretation would go along the lines that each and every man is entitled to alter the requirements of God for the sabbath as he sees fit. But this misses the implications of what has preceded the opening of chapter 12 as we’ve just noted and places correct interpretation in the hands of men and women regardless of their relationship before God.
It’s only a true revelation of the nature of God that can truly interpret Scripture correctly and fully and so, the Son who has a perfect revelation, must also be the One who alone can fully interpret what God intends for mankind on the sabbath (see my notes on Mtw 11:27). As Mathag correctly concludes
‘The Son of man is with His people as sovereign Lord and messianic king and acts as the final and infallible interpreter of the will of God as expressed in Torah and sabbath commandment’
Healing the incapacitated on the Sabbath
We have previously cited Shabbath 7:2 in the Mishnah in the context of the previous passage and shown that the actions which had been performed by the disciples could have been categorised in that list of thirty-nine actions which described the types of ‘work’ that were forbidden under the regulations of the sabbath imposed by the scribes and Pharisees. The verse concludes (my italics) that
‘...these are the main classes of work...’
so that anything which may have been deemed as being ‘work’ could have been added as a sort of an appendix to it. It’s hardly surprising that ‘healing’ isn’t on the list of these thirty-nine classes, however, but that the Jewish religious leaders regarded it as such is obvious from their reaction both here and in Luke 13:14-17 where a similar incident takes place in a synagogue when a woman is unbound in their midst. There, the ruler of the synagogue exhorts the people (Luke 13:14-17) that
‘...There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day’
Although the people in the congregation ultimately realised the folly of their reasoning and changed into rejoicing when they perceived the greatness of what had just been performed (Mtw 13:17), it does give us a good indication that the Jews’ reason behind their question in Mtw 12:10 as to whether it was lawful to heal on the sabbath was one which had to do with what constituted work (though they weren’t wanting a definition but evidence to condemn - see below).
Again, as in the other passage, the people seem to have only been concerned with defining the move of God in Jesus into terms which they could understand and either approve or condemn, holding fast to their foundational principles of legal interpretation and observance rather than to realise the emptiness of their religion and be ‘converted over’ to the freedom and rest which had come in Jesus (Mtw 11:28-30).
Neither could the religious leaders have justified Jesus’ action by recourse to Yoma 8:6 which we saw above stated that
‘...whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath’
for a man with a withered hand (Luke 6:6 informs us that it was his right) could hardly have been construed to have been in danger of losing his life and it remains true to say that he could have been healed the day before on the Friday as well as on the day following, on the Sunday, rather than for him to be healed on the sabbath.
But heal him Jesus did, and that in response to a question posed Him by the people which the writer simply describes as ‘they’ where he may mean for the reader to understand by that phrase most of those present or, in a more limited sense, just the religious leaders.
Both Mark and Luke’s account have no such question. For the question, Mark 3:2 records that
‘...they watched Him, to see whether He would heal him on the sabbath...’
while Luke 6:7 records a similar sentence though there the ‘scribes and the Pharisees’ are the ones singled out to define the ‘they’ of the other two passages. All three writers, however, conclude the sentence similarly by explaining that these things were done by them, as Matthew,
‘...so that they might accuse Him’
Whether the question recorded by Matthew is supposed to be a specific utterance or whether it represents a way for him to be able to convey Luke’s statement that Jesus ‘knew their thoughts’ and that they were questioning as to whether this ‘great teacher’ would define healing as work and so refrain from it (Luke 6:8) is something about which it’s difficult to be certain - and it’s possible that the religious leaders simply watched while the people in the synagogue asked the question.
Whatever, it’s clear that the man with the withered hand represented a unique first hand opportunity for the religious leaders to be able to witness whether Jesus would perform what they considered to be ‘work’ on a day when they had obligated every Jew to ‘refrain’ from all types of acts which they defined by their own imaginations.
All three writers’ statements that they were seeking evidence that they might accuse Him shows that they had already by this time settled it in their own minds that Jesus wasn’t from God and that they must gather information to make a formal accusation against Him. Mathag notes that
‘Their obsession with the letter of the law [that is, their interpretation of it] apparently made it impossible for them to think of anything else, and so the miracle as a sign of the dawning of the Kingdom and of the truth of Jesus’ message was lost on them’
To those who have already set their hearts on a matter, not even the miraculous is a guarantee that their minds will be changed on the matter - indeed, here a miracle is the very thing which proves their previous assumption that Jesus is opposed to the will of God.
Jesus, however, decides to confront the authorities with the reasoning of their own minds by bringing the man to stand before Him and, as in Mark and Luke, asking them to decide on the matter. Matthew doesn’t record the question from Jesus but seems to recount the statement which followed it which would have served as a relevant answer to His own question but which is omitted by the other two writers.
All three passages, therefore, need to be put together to fully understand the scene of what transpired. Luke 6:9 records the question as
‘...is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’
before Matthew 12:11-12 notes that the answer from His lips came to them as another question which allowed them to use their own reasoning to answer the question. This put whatever condemnation that they were about to pronounce upon Him squarely back upon themselves for, knowing that they wouldn’t think twice about rescuing one of their animals from danger and of restoring its welfare, they should naturally have rationalised that a human was of much more value and was therefore worthy of the act of healing - even if it was a sabbath.
Besides, their actions showed that they would put their hands to secure their own financial welfare on the sabbath without making an informed decision as to whether the beast fallen into the pit would survive until the sabbath was over (though this appears to have been the way their reasoning went in later times after Christ) but they wouldn’t seek the welfare of another because of their failure to exercise the reasoning that they applied when it suited their own situation. As Matfran points out
‘Jesus’ response this time is not to assert His own authority directly, nor to quote an OT example, but to point to the inconsistency of their own practice. They were strict in prohibiting another man’s healing but not where their own property was concerned’
Interestingly, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were much more strict in this sense (in word at least) than the Pharisees who commanded in their Community Rule (CD 11) that
‘No man shall assist a beast to give birth on the Sabbath day. And if it should fall into a cistern or pit, he shall not lift it out on the Sabbath’
It would appear that ‘life in danger’ only applied, for them, to human life. Matfran notes that the rabbis continued to discuss the matter through the centuries following this incident and into Talmudic times and that
‘...the Talmud concludes that the avoidance of animal suffering should override regulations (Shabbath 128b)’
something that they were happy to apply to an animal but not necessarily to a human. This Talmudic statement was in the future, however, and the sentence from the Mishnah seems to have been the bottom line at this point in Israel’s religious history.
Jesus’ reaction to their silence is spelled out only in Mark 3:5 which says very simply that
‘...He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart...’
and it gives us an indication of the way Jesus was impressed with an emotional response to their lack of concern for the man’s welfare. After all, the issue seems to have been whether they could establish enough proof in their own minds that Jesus wasn’t from God (Mtw 12:10) not that the power of God needed to be displayed so that a man might receive his healing!
Their ‘hardness of heart’ means something other than our modern day expression which points more in the way of an act of cruelty and here means that they had chosen a path down which they were going to tread and there was nothing that Jesus could either say or do that was going to change their minds for them.
Markcole notes quite correctly that a man’s hardness of heart
‘...can end in the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit [which is what transpires a little later in Mtw 12:24,31-32]. It should be noted that this is a sin to which, to judge from Scripture, the theologian and the religiously-minded are more exposed than are the publican and sinner...’
and, as we’ve previously seen, it is predominantly the religious leadership who will oppose the move of God in their own generation than would those who know nothing about God.
The healing demanded a response from the man that he stretch out his hand but Matfran goes perhaps too far when he states that
‘...the command to stretch out an immovable hand neatly illustrates the faith which was the correlative to Jesus’ healing power’
for there doesn’t appear to be an inference that in stretching out the hand that the healing would come. Indeed, Jesus never at anytime pronounces the healing and certainly doesn’t tell the man to either receive his healing or that it’s about to happen. ‘Faith’ is too strong a statement to make, it would appear, but that the man was healed as he raised his arm (which doesn’t appear to have been ‘withered’, just his hand) and went to put his hand outwards also seems to be the point of the text.
Matmor is correct to state that Jesus’ command
‘...was obviously quite beyond the man in his crippled state...’
but he certainly attempted to do what he’d been ordered. Whether the man was shocked at what immediately transpired is, unfortunately, also not recorded for us.
I noted in my introduction to Matthew chapters 8 and 9 that the healings in those places had the one underlying principle common in all - where the incapacitated person either comes, is brought to or is made aware to Jesus. Here we have no clear indication that Jesus didn’t call the person from the crowd to receive a healing but there’s equally nothing in the text which would substantiate the principle we saw previously.
I’ll deal with the reaction of the Pharisees in the next section and how modern day ‘Pharisees’ - that is, the legalistic believers who insist on the observance of a written code rather than on a relationship with God by revelation - still react in ways that their ancient counterparts did, condemning works of God and attempting to bring down those whom God has raised up for their welfare.
But, for now, we need just to notice that, far from being silenced by both Jesus’ reasoning and His demonstration of divine authority, the religious leaders simply decided that, because He doesn’t conform to their own interpretation of the Scriptures, Jesus has to be removed.
The Greek word employed here (Strongs Greek number 622) is the same one from which the title ‘Apollyon’ comes and which is used in Rev 9:11 of someone or something which appears to be of demonic origin and who rules over the great distress which befalls the inhabitants of the earth (Rev 9:3-6).
The context of the religious leaders’ words here, however, is one of destruction and annihilation and is used in Greek of killing the enemy in battle. As such, there is little doubt what the author of Matthew is trying to convey as to the Jewish intentions concerning Jesus. It’s unlikely, from this moment onwards, that anything that Jesus did was going to ever be interpreted in a positive light.
The principle of the passage to Jesus was straightforward and can be summarised in the statement that life is to be preserved, saved and restored even on the sabbath and it therefore takes precedence over it (Luke 6:9).
Jesus was living out the reality of what He asked the Pharisees in the parallel passage in Luke 6:9 when He said
‘...is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’
This does refer us back to Yoma 8:6 cited above but it expands its interpretation to include not just life that’s in danger and in need of saving but life that has a need to be restored when the restoration and healing process could have been begun either the day before or the day after the sabbath. The rabbis would probably have argued that, in this case, life was not in danger and Jesus could have waited until the following day to heal him.
This would have been the case, however, if the power to heal was something that Jesus could dispense at will rather than have to rely upon the movings of the Father to heal as and when He revealed to Him that He should. In that case, being obedient to the oral code of the Pharisees would have meant being disobedient to the voice of God.
We must remember that Jesus relied upon the Father to do all that He did (John 5:30) and, if we take Jesus outside that dependent relationship, we see Him operating from His own deity rather than from within His humanity, hardly an example to mankind of the relationship an ordinary man or woman can have with God.
The works of God, then, are those that save life from destruction and restore it into God’s original intention for His Creation, and always override the legalistic observance of the sabbath or of anything else where man has interpreted the will of God into a series of man-made rules that bind and restrict God’s free movement both within society and His people.
The writers of the Gospels seem to take great delight in listing the times when Jesus healed men and women on sabbaths and it seems to be one of the main controversies which accompanied His ministry. In John chapter 5 we find another such incident (see verse 9) where Jesus sees the need and heals a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When confronted by the Jewish leaders, Jesus further angers His opponents by proclaiming (5:17-18)
‘My Father is working still and I am working’
Instead of trying to ameliorate their concerns, He states that God is working on the sabbath which is why the invalid was healed - this left them no choice but to accept His radical (to them) view of the day of rest or to reject His assertion that it was God who had performed the healing. And, as a consequence, if power has been released to effect some change in the person’s life, there was only one other place that that power could have come from (Mtw 12:24).
God works on all days - even the sabbath - but such words cut through the legalistic observance that the Jews had built around that day. It’s not surprising, therefore, that clinging on to their interpretation of the Law, they rejected the works of God throughout Jesus’ ministry.
Now that we’ve arrived at this section, you may be thinking that I intend outlining just why the Pharisees were so evil and why they so vehemently opposed the will of God through Jesus. This I intend doing of sorts but it’s just too easy for us to think of the NT Pharisee and so forget that the Church has often stood in the same position as that religious movement and, while condemning them for their attitudes, blindness and hardness of heart, have then proceeded to do the very same things - thus showing that we are, in effect, of the same spirit and duplicating the works which we say we hate!
We must realise that Pharisaism is alive and well - not amongst present day Jews (though I’m sure that, having seen a few of the more legalistic Jewish leaders and believers, the trait is not devoid of association there) but amongst the rank and file of those people who take upon themselves the name of ‘christian’ and amongst many who also hold the label of ‘leader’.
After all, it was the Pharisees’ position of leadership within the Israel of Jesus’ day that caused so much opposition to the move of God, not the legalistic practices of the average man in the street who went to the synagogues to listen to them!
Therefore, let’s try and get away from thinking this is about ‘them’ - rather, using NT principles, this section is predominantly meant to be about ‘us’, the way we get jealous when God uses someone else rather then ourselves, how we seek to malign the move of God which we can’t control, how we like to destroy the men of God with our words so that we can regain some of our control back and how we rarely live up to the pronouncement of our own judgments, whether they be justified or not.
Although this isn’t a long section, it’s one that’s probably more important for us to sit down and apply to our own lives than anything that’s come before it on this web page!
Modern day Church Pharisaism, therefore, can be seen to have any or all of the following traits.
A Pharisee gets jealous when God uses other people rather than themselves.
Although jealousy is not specifically mentioned in this passage, by comparing other Scriptures, we see that it was this base motive that was behind the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus and the reason for them handing Him over into the hands of the Roman authorities (Mtw 27:18, Mark 15:10).
For they wouldn’t enter the Kingdom of heaven themselves and, in their jealousy, prevented anyone else from entering as much as they were able (Mtw 23:13). Apparent also in Acts 13:45 and 17:5 is the jealousy of the Jews which caused them to try and dissuade others from entering the Kingdom.
It’s recorded for us that they were also jealous of Jesus because they wanted the inheritance of God for themselves (Mtw 21:38-39) rather than share it with anyone - they refused to enter humbly and wanted, rather, to be overlords (Luke 7:29-30).
At the base of this jealousy is the desire to control and be central to what is taking place around oneself. The language may be ever so spiritually pious but the bottom line is that, as soon as the move of God becomes uncontrollable and outside their direct influence, control over the people who are moving with God becomes threatened and their importance lessened.
And so they become both envious and jealous of those whom God uses, for He often by-passes the religious Pharisee until they come to a place where they forsake their own desired control and give it over to God’s will.
2. Anger and Destruction
A Pharisee gets angry and seeks to destroy people who don’t conform themselves to their own interpretation of Scripture.
Notice how, in the second of the two passages dealt with on this web page, they came to Jesus seeking a reason to accuse Him - Mtw 12:10. It wasn’t that they stumbled on an issue which proved problematical to their understanding of the Scriptures, but they specifically used a situation which arose in order to glean information about Jesus which they could use against Him.
Sabbath observance is particularly highlighted in the Scriptures and seems to have been one of the major stumbling blocks for the religious Jew (Mtw 12:2,10, John 9:16, 5:17-18). The Pharisees had interpreted the Law concerning this day into a legalistic set of rules and regulations which made it more a day of work - a day of religious observance - than of rest. For this reason, they sought to kill Him.
Jesus’ claim also to be the Messiah (Mtw 26:63-66), God come in human form, was also rejected by the Jews (as it had to be if they were going to remain in control of the religion in the nation - the last thing you want is God turning up on your doorstep!) because they hadn’t interpreted Scripture correctly to allow for God to do this. After all, when the high priest hears the answer to his question, he doesn’t for one moment stop to consider whether it might in fact be true!
They refused to shift from their own interpretations and so set about attempting to remove Jesus.
Naturally, when a person or group of people begin to lose control over a situation in which God is moving through jealousy that He’s using other people rather than themselves (see the first point above), if they’re unable to reclaim the ground and bring it under their control, the only option left is to seek to destroy either the people or person of the movement or the movement itself.
In Christ, they attempted to undermine Jesus’ authority by disassociating themselves with both Him and His teaching, announcing to the multitudes that it was only a demonic work which was being performed in their midst (Mtw 9:34, 12:24), attempting to undermine the disciples’ faith in and support of the One they were following (Mtw 9:11, 15:12) and, eventually, seeking to destroy the One around whom it was all centred (Mtw 12:14).
Jealousy, far from an innocent emotion, can quite quickly inspire the possessor to consider murder.
A Pharisee condemns people by their own standards which they themselves don’t live up to.
This is also known as ‘hypocrisy’ or play-acting, where, in the Greek world, masks and mechanical devices were used to change the voice of the character and to portray something which was wholly different to what the person actually was (this is the background to the Greek word translated ‘hypocrisy’ - see my notes here in the introduction before the main body of headed notes).
They were double-minded men who could justify their own behaviour but which, when done by the ones of whom they didn’t approve, they could issue absolute denunciations and condemn them as being against the purposes of God Himself.
As Paul pointed out in Romans 2:1, the people who judge another according to the Law (or according to rules and regulations that have been imposed upon all men) condemn themselves
‘...because you, the judge, are doing the very same things’
For instance, the Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mtw 11:19) and yet they took counsel with the Herodians who were unholy and ungodly men, those who supported the immoral Herodian dynasty of which they were opposed (Mark 3:6, Mtw 12:14). But, obviously, the end justified the means and, in desperate times, anything seems to have been allowable!
They condemned Jesus for doing a good work on a sabbath (Mtw 12:10,14) but they had no problem with their own plotting of an evil work on the same one (Mark 3:6) by taking counsel how they might destroy Him.
Even though those who say they’re standing up for the things of God according to the preconception of their own minds may look very holy on the outside and may, even, couch their actions in righteous sounding words where the welfare of the people seems to be at the heart, their own lives condemn their judgments.
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