READ : Matthew 12:1-14
Many devout Jews of Jesus’ day became upset when they saw him – as they thought – playing fast and loose with the sabbath day. But Jesus claims to be greater even than the sabbath.
It is difficult for us today to realize how important the Sabbath Day was for the Jewish people in New Testament times. The exile in Babylon had taught the Jews that sabbath observance was the key to remaining distinctive as a people and keeping faith with the God of Israel. One biblical scholar explains it like this:
Deprived of its Temple, capital city [Jerusalem], and homeland, the Jewish exiles emphasized the Sabbath as a very important religious obligation . . . [for it was] at least something of a substitute for the Temple [worship] when the Jerusalem Temple lay in ruins or was not accessible to Jews.
(Quoted in F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 1, p.546)
So it is understandable that many devout Jews of Jesus’ day became terribly upset when they watched him ??” as they saw it ??” playing fast and loose with the traditional rules for sabbath observance. One such occasion is described in the opening verses of Matthew 12.
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. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Here once again Jesus is accosted by his inveterate enemies, the Pharisees, the religious conservatives of his day. Their party platform, if we think of it like that, was the determination to obey the law in its entirety, right down to the smallest detail. They were the ultra-orthodox, the totally dedicated, the religiously pure, who would go to any lengths to keep all of God’s commands.
Keeping the Sabbath
The Pharisees were particularly keen on keeping the sabbath holy, and given the importance of the sabbath for the Jewish nation as a whole, it’s easy to see why. The sabbath had originally been set aside as a day of rest in commemoration of God’s “rest” at the completion of creation. Its purpose was to relieve people from the onerous burden of ceaseless toil by providing a regular break from work. In so doing, the Sabbath also reminded God’s people that they were not to find the meaning and value of their lives in what they did or how much they could produce; “Man does not live by bread alone,” as Jesus had said. Rather, they were to look to God for provision (“But by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord,” Jesus added.) So the sabbath was to be kept holy ??” that is, set apart ??” by doing no work on it, as a sign that our entire life as God’s people is ultimately dependent upon him.
But when folks began seriously to attempt to keep the sabbath, they ran into difficulties. How could you be sure you weren’t working on that day? What constituted work? The Pharisees set themselves to answer those questions, and over the centuries their traditions produced supplementary laws ??” hundreds of them ??” which attempted to define precisely what could and couldn’t be done, and exactly when you crossed the line from necessary activity into prohibited labor. So there were laws prescribing how far you could walk before you were working (the gospels, in fact, say that Bethany was “a sabbath’s journey” distant from Jerusalem ??” that’s about a mile and a half.) There were laws defining how much you could pick up and carry, whether you could cook, or light a fire, or help a neighbor in an emergency, and on and on. Every contingency was addressed, and every action scrutinized.
That’s why the Pharisees, watching Jesus and his disciples like hawks for any sign of inappropriate behavior, jumped all over them for picking grain on the sabbath. Jesus and the disciples were walking through the fields ??” in Palestine the footpaths wound right through the grainfields ??” and the disciples apparently were hungry. So they grabbed some of the ripe heads of grain and ate them as they passed, a perfectly legal and accepted custom.
But some of the Pharisees who saw this were scandalized. The issue wasn’t taking the grain, the issue was doing that on the sabbath day. Actually, the Pharisees had the disciples on two counts of sabbath-breaking: “harvesting” (for picking the heads) and “threshing” (for rubbing them in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff.) So they immediately cornered Jesus and demanded to know why he was allowing the law to be broken.
In reply Jesus cited an incident out of the Old Testament when David and his men broke the ritual law in a case of human hunger. The Lord’s point is that people take precedence over regulations; his disciples weren’t “working” on the sabbath, they were eating! The Pharisees had become so obsessed with their rules for protecting the divine commandment they forgot that the original intention of that commandment was to benefit people. The commandment to keep the sabbath day holy, like all of God’s laws, was intended to help people live a happier and healthier life. But the legalistic perversion of the commandment by the Pharisees had turned the sabbath into a source of misery.
The conclusion to Jesus’ sabbath debate with the Pharisees is even more telling. Jesus takes this occasion to say something more about himself. Not content with silencing his critics by citing the biblical example of David and his men, Jesus throws out another argument to them. “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (v. 5). In other words, some people have always had to work on the sabbath, especially people involved in ministry.
And then Jesus also quotes a famous text from the book of Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), adding, “If you knew what that means you would not condemn the innocent. His reasoning goes something like this: Don’t turn this day of rest and gladness into a weariness and a burden with all your petty rules. This day is supposed to benefit people, not burden them ??” the sabbath is meant for man, not man for the sabbath. Don’t get so caught up in do’s and don’ts that you forget that God’s primary concern is with the welfare of people.
And then Jesus adds this: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (v. 6). And finally this, “For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (v. 8). That is a breath-taking claim! In fact, two breath-taking claims for the price of one! To the Jews the only thing greater than the sabbath was the temple, and the only thing greater than the temple was God. Jesus is saying that he himself is the “something greater” that is now here. He is greater than the temple, greater than the sabbath, greater even than God’s law, God’s written word. He is, quite simply, God. And therefore all authority belongs to him. Jesus is Lord. He decides what is permitted, and permissible.
But the Pharisees couldn’t see it. They didn’t just object to what Jesus did, or criticize him for what he said. When he broke their rules, they wanted to kill him. Matthew concludes this section of chapter 12 with these words: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him (v. 14). What an amazing thing! The super-religious, the ultra-conservatives, the most zealous for God ??” these are the very people who plot to destroy Jesus, who is God-in-the-flesh. And they eventually succeed.
Do you realize how dangerous religion can be? Probably you do nowadays, given the realities of religion-fueled hatred and terrorism in our world. But before we’re too quick to point the finger at other religious groups, we ought to recognize the danger in ourselves. Anyone can become a Pharisee, a person so proud of their moral superiority, so convinced of their own rightness (and righteousness), so filled with contempt for anyone who disagrees with or differs from them, that they feel justified in hating, perhaps even in killing. But Jesus didn’t come to make people more religious. He came to save sinners.
The message of Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about grace. The gospel doesn’t say, “Obey all the rules like a good person and you get to go to heaven”; the gospel says, “You’re not a good person, you’ll never be a good person, at least not on your own, but God loves you anyway, and Christ died for your sins, and now you can live for him.”
It’s a radical message, and it sets me free from the need to justify myself. It allows me to be honest about who and what I am, and to base my personal identity and worth on my acceptance with God rather than on my own achievements. It means I don’t have to elevate myself by putting others down, that I can accept and even love people who are different from me because we’re all just sinners in need of God’s mercy. And it’s all because of Jesus, the Lord not just of the sabbath, but of everything.