Lord of the Sabbath: The Law, the Sabbath, and the Messianic Mission (Pt 1)

At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. 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, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry — how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!

If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-8)

Matthew 12 opens with a simple but profound story. After the confrontation of Matthew 11, Jesus went out on the sabbath day. It was likely morning. He and his disciples walked through a field of grain. We know from the next passage that they were on their way to the synagogue, and they were hungry — so as they walked, the disciples plucked a few heads of grain, rolled them in their hands to break the outer shell, and ate the kernels. They were enjoying a quick breakfast on their way to church.

But by this time, they were being watched. The Pharisees saw them and called Jesus to account: his disciples, they said, were breaking the sabbath laws.

In answer, Jesus rose up in defense of his friends and of his sabbath — a truly good gift that was being perverted, misunderstood and even used against people God loved. Jesus, who after all had just invited the weary to come to him, answered the Pharisees with all his considerable skill as an exegete and his unmatched insight into the motives of God.

Jesus vs the Pharisees

If you recall, Jesus began to clash with the Pharisees back in Matthew 9, when his agenda and theirs first crossed.

By eating with “sinners,” Jesus put the Pharisees on high alert: they saw him not only as a false Messiah claimant but as dangerously subversive — a false teacher who, while professing to be from God, would actually lead the people of Israel away from faithfulness to God, deeper into apostasy and thus deeper into divine judgment. In their view, if the Jewish people listened to people like Jesus, the oppressive rule of foreign powers over Israel would be prolonged, and the Messiah’s coming would be delayed.

From the time of that first serious clash, the Pharisees watched Jesus closely, looking for every sign that they were right — that he was a compromiser, out to destroy the covenant faithfulness of God’s people by teaching them not to obey the law.

Plucking and eating grain was a very small thing, but it was good enough for the Pharisees to adopt as evidence against Jesus. Jesus’s disciples were doing what was “not lawful” for them to do.

Grain, Work, and the Law of the Sabbath

Before we go on, we should address the question of whether they were right. Was it true that Jesus’s disciples were breaking the law?

In a word, no. The Pharisees’ “not lawful” in this passage is a prime example of stretching the Mosaic law out of shape, something they were quite good at.

(Unfortunately, they weren’t alone. Years later, the apostle Peter complained of people in the church who did the same thing: “The untaught and unstable twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures,” 2 Peter 3:16.)

The Pharisees did not just keep the law, they also built very big fences around those laws so that no one could even get close to breaking them, and they treated the fences as though they themselves were the law of God. Jesus was not impressed by this.

So what did the law actually say? The Old Testament forbade “work” (Hebrew malak) on the sabbath, and although the law did not specifically define what did or didn’t count as work, the idea was that of engaging in one’s occupation — whether in the household or in business.

For example, at different points in the Old Testament, gathering firewood on the Sabbath was specifically condemned; so was carrying loads of goods to market. Both were ordinary, necessary jobs, and neither had any special urgency or necessity attached to them beyond the need for responsible stewardship (which in God’s economy includes rest). On a day covenantally set apart for rest and fellowship with God, such activities amounted to ignoring, dismissing, and dishonoring the covenant.

But it’s a big stretch to say that picking and eating a handful of grain while you walk through a field on your way to church is “work” in this sense or any other.*

Actually, the law itself indicated that the sabbath was intended to bring refreshment and even nourishment to the needy. Look at this passage, which speaks first of the seventh-year land sabbaths and then of the regular weekly sabbath:

Sow your land for six years and gather its produce. But during the seventh year you are to let it rest and leave it uncultivated, so that the poor among your people may eat from it and the wild animals may consume what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Do your work for six days but rest on the seventh day so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave as well as the foreign resident may be refreshed. (Exodus 21:10-12, my emphasis)

For all these reasons, Jesus could have dismissed the Pharisees’ judgment fairly easily, in the same way he dismissed other Pharisaic traditions as counter to God’s word and intent (see Matthew 15:1-9, for example). Their verdict was simply wrong.

But rather than get into the weeds with them, going into the minutiae of the law in order to demonstrate that his disciples were not actually breaking the sabbath, Jesus pulled back to a much wider view.

He didn’t get into the details. Instead, he asked the Pharisees to look at the heart — their hearts — and to see this small confrontation through a far wider lens.

Not surprisingly, there was a bigger picture in all of this, and what seemed like a pedantic confrontation over sabbath regulations was in fact a clash over Jesus’s identity, the Messianic mission, and the heart of the Father.

To open this greater conversation, Jesus deployed two passages from the Old Testament: one a story, the other a law. We’ll look at these in greater detail starting next week.

To be continued …

*As it happens, the law also specifically permitted people to pick and eat wheat from their neighbors’ fields as they passed through — see Deuteronomy 23:25.


This is Part 203 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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