Matthew 12: 1-14
Parallel Mark 2: 23-3: 6; Luke 6: 1-11
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
These stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that make up most of chapter twelve of Matthew point to two intertwining questions of the identity and authority of Jesus and what the nature of righteousness in this kingdom Jesus proclaims will look like. Matthew has used titles, quotations and allusions to scripture, narrative and now comparison to highlight aspects of the identity of Jesus and no single title or idea seems to completely capture the identity of Jesus in his gospel. A large part of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees we meet in the gospel center around how his identity and interpretation of the practice of the law come into conflict with their own practices and their restriction of certain authority to the God of Israel. Jesus’ actions to this group of Pharisees represent a violation of their understanding of their covenant with the God of Israel and jeopardize, in their view, their vocation to be a priestly people.
Before we examine the identity that Matthew’s gospel wants to highlight for Jesus and understand why he would argue for ‘mercy and not sacrifice’ it is important to understand the worldview of the Pharisees as they are presented here. Many scholars would argue that the picture of the Pharisees in the gospels is a polemic characterization, which is true, and the views expressed by the Pharisees as represented in the gospels probably may not accurately depict the understanding of that entire group. Yet, I do think that within these conflict stories we do see two distinct understandings of righteousness and the covenant expectations of the people emerging which I think highlight why the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders in Galilee and Judah emerged. Unfortunately, the way of thinking which most people in the West for the last several centuries have been trained in obscures the important communal portion of identity which is central to understanding why these controversies exist.
Most modern people think of decisions of faith as an individual decision made by a rational (or sometimes irrational) person in a world where spirituality is a part of our private life. This is not the world of the gospels for either Jesus or his opponents. The nations of Israel considered itself set apart to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19: 6) Its identity depended upon its maintaining the laws, practices, commandments and statutes of their God. Its history of prosperity and famine, independence, exile and renewal is tied to a theological reading of history which is dependent on the covenant faithfulness of their kings and by extension the people. Their protection from the forces at work in the world: the demonic forces of oppression, the uncontrollable (but divine or demonically impacted) forces of nature like storms and earthquakes and the rise and fall of empires (and the destruction of war, the gift of peace or the occupation of a foreign invader) all depend upon God’s favor. In a worldview where the community’s collective practice of being a priestly nation and a holy people are the only way of accessing the security their God promised to provide, the type of changes to practice that Jesus was doing are not minor unless he has the authority to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. Charles Taylor’s description of a ‘heretic’ in pre-Reformation Europe is far closer to the experience of people in Jesus’ time than our own modern understanding:
Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of these rites in danger, and hence pose a menace to everyone. (Taylor, 2007, p. 42)
If you want to understand why Jesus’ actions of allowing his disciples to eat on the Sabbath or healing on the Sabbath would provoke, to a modern mind, the disproportionate response of conspiring how to destroy Jesus you need to examine the threat he posed, in the eyes of this group of Pharisees, to the identity of the people of the villages he passed through as a holy people and a priestly nation. These practices, which may seem rigid and legalistic to us, provided for these Pharisees an important part of their connection to their God.
One of the dangers that people of faith face is placing their trust in the wrong things, constructing their identity around practices which lose their connection to the broader understanding of why those practices exist. The Hebrew prophets had often called the people of Israel back to a focus on the God of Israel and the justice that was the intention of the law with its commandments, practices and statutes. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, like the Hebrew prophets, shows little interest in a piety that is disconnected from a merciful interpretation of righteousness. For Matthew, not only have the Pharisees that Jesus encounters lost the connection between their practices and righteousness (understood through the lens of mercy) but they also fail to perceive that Jesus has the authority to declare what the proper practice of sabbath looks like.
In the first controversy occurs as Jesus and his disciples go out into the waiting harvest and are ironically passing through a wheat field at harvest time. The disciples of Jesus pick grain to eat from a field which they are passing through causing the controversy. At stake is an understanding of the commandment on sabbath:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave; or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-14)
Within this understanding of sabbath going out to harvest your field on the sabbath would of course be forbidden because it would involve work. We might quickly think that the little bit of labor the disciples do to address their hunger a small thing but for these Pharisees it is not, for them the sanctity of sabbath is at risk. Jesus’ response takes us back to three pieces of scripture, the first is from 1 Samuel 21:
David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread — provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.” David answered the priest, “Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. 1 Samuel 21: 1-6
David is fleeing King Saul, who intends to kill him, and in departing is allowed by the priest to eat the bread of the presence set out each day for the LORD which only the priests were supposed to eat. There is a narrative precedence in the person of David for violating holiness so that he may do what is necessary in his predicament. The second piece of scripture references the practices of the priest in setting out the bread (that David and his companions ate) as well as incense on sabbath:
Every sabbath day Aaron shall set them in order before the LORD regularly as a commitment of the people of Israel, as a covenant forever. They (the bread) shall be for Aaron and his descendants, who shall eat them in a holy place, for they are most holy portions for him from the offerings by fire to the LORD, a perpetual due. Leviticus 24: 8-9
The final piece of scripture is the second time Matthew has quoted Hosea 6:6 (previously quoted in Matthew 9: 13 in the context of eating with sinners and tax collectors after the call of Matthew) which points to the central idea of mercy in Jesus’ conception of righteousness. Jesus in his dialogue with these Pharisees uses scripture to highlight a different understanding of righteous practice but he also in two stunning statements points to his own authority to make these declarations. By implication of the David story he is greater than David, but then he says plainly he is greater than the temple and lord of the sabbath. His identity as the Son of Man gives him precedence over the sabbath, just as David’s flight allowed him and his companions to eat the bread of the presence, but one greater than the temple is standing before these Pharisees who probably believe that two of their central pillars of religious identity are being violated. If Jesus is not lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple then he is a danger to the people who needs to be eliminated, but those hearing this narrative are invited to ponder the identity of one who is master of sabbath and greater than the temple.
The second controversy involves healing on the sabbath and whether that involves work. The question of whether it is permitted to heal on sabbath is asked to categorize Jesus’ actions as no longer remaining within the bounds of righteousness as they practice it. Jesus replies with a situation which implies an understanding of scripture where competing practices are to be answered in an interpretation shaped by practices of mercy. The command of scripture is now placed next to the command on acting on behalf of the neighbor’s fallen animal:
You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall lift it up and help it. (Deuteronomy 22: 4)
Simply because the animal is now the individuals who sees it does not indicate that the seeing one is required to let the animal suffer because it is sabbath and it is their animal rather than their neighbor’s. Jesus’ answer implies that the hearer will know that the proper response is to act on behalf of the animal and by moving from an animal of lesser importance to a human being of greater importance that one is expected to help on the sabbath when one sees another suffering. In Jesus’ merciful understanding of righteousness, it is not only permitted to do good to one in need of healing on the sabbath it is expected. Jesus claims the authority to properly interpret what sabbath is about, but we have already heard him claim to be lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple. His work of mercy is what the God of Israel desires instead of sacrifice and his ability to relieve the suffering of this man on the sabbath is another sign of the kingdom of heaven’s approach in his ministry. These claims appear blasphemous to the Pharisees he is in conflict with and they feel he is a danger to the people’s relationship with their God and so they conspire to destroy him. In Jesus’ view they have aligned themselves against the approach of the kingdom of heaven, in their view he is a menace to everyone.