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. 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 and his companions were hungry? 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. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But 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.”
Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)
This is one of the episodes in Jesus’ life that I could easily see happening, today, either among Jews on Saturday or Calvinists on Sunday. Jesus’ disciples pick grain to eat on the Lord’s Day, and the religious gatekeepers have an issue with this.
On paper, they have a valid objection. The Law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath and makes no direct exceptions. Interpreters of the Law – the biblical scholars of the day – had teased out all kinds of implications of this commandment (cf. the Westminster Larger Catechism) leaving the Jewish people with essentially permission to breathe and move around a little. The Law continues to hold sway in this way. The Sabbath has always been a definitive marker of the Jewish people, and to this day, some Orthodox Jews won’t even flip a light switch on the Sabbath.
Jesus begins his defense by bringing up counter-examples in the Old Testament of people breaking the Sabbath due to hunger. David and his companions are one example, and the laws concerning priests are another example. The priests are especially noteworthy, because not only do they glean their food for the day from offerings, but they also are about all kinds of work in the Temple.
I’m surprised Matthew does not record some wag piping up, “Oh, so you believe the Bible has contradictions in it. Why don’t you just admit that you don’t believe the Scriptures, Jesus?” because that’s the sort of thing people say to me when I point out areas of the Old Testament that don’t gel. “The priests and David weren’t really breaking the Sabbath, because if you look at the text carefully….” but Jesus says they are breaking the Sabbath. Perhaps he’s putting air quotes around that phrase, but we can’t know that from the text.
But Jesus’ intent is not to invalidate the Law, per se, but rather to point out that the Sabbath laws give way to larger considerations, such as the king of Israel and his companions being hungry (you see where Jesus is going with this, right?) or the priests serving in the Temple.
The clash between himself and the religious authorities of his day is something that has worked its way into Matthew in many passages, but here, Jesus brings it to a head on collision. “Something greater than the Temple is here.”
Well, that escalated quickly. What began as a theological justification for picking grain to eat on the Sabbath (with some veiled allusions to Jesus and his disciples being comparable to David and his companions as well as priests) ended up in a straight up challenge directly to the Temple, and the Temple is not going to take this lying down.
To substantiate this claim, Jesus invokes Hosea 6:6. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
In Hosea, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have fallen into grave disobedience, allying and intermarrying with other nations, their rulers, and their gods to seek protection and prosperity. They have left their trust and love of YHWH who had delivered and preserved them up to that point for other loves and other sources of security. I’ll pause a moment to allow any pastors reading this to make a sermon point out of that observation.
In light of this, YHWH despises the external obedience that Israel and Judah produce. You can bring your sacrifices all day long to the Temple, but you won’t find God there. You’ll find an empty shell of a priesthood going through the motions. But God doesn’t want their sacrifices and burnt offerings (although, it should be noted in the Law, God absolutely wants their sacrifices and burnt offerings); He wants their love and trust back.
A similar theme opens Isaiah right in chapter 1. In verse 11, YHWH basically says, “Who asked you to bring me sacrifices?” Well, You did, but the point is that God does not want burnt animal carcasses. The sacrifices are only meaningful if they reflect a desire to repent and restore the relationship Israel has to her God that has been disrupted by her sins. Without that desire, now we’re just killing goats for no particular reason other than the fact that the Law requires it.
In Hosea, this situation is followed by prophecy that Israel will be invaded by foreign powers, sacked and ravaged by them, and live in captivity under them.
Jesus is framing his current situation against the situation described in Hosea. He is telling anyone who will listen that the Temple of his day is as effectual as the Temple of Hosea’s day. Israel’s heart is far from God. She trusts in other things, now. But she goes through the motions all the same. For Jesus, the Temple and the leaders in it who perpetuate the current state of affairs (which we know is not every single one of them, but almost all) are that empty shell. Her offerings mean nothing to God and will not stop His coming judgement. What God wants is not the raw observance of the Law; He wants Israel’s love and trust back.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees to understand what’s really going on, here. The Temple they serve is a sham and God despises it. God’s judgement is coming, and the only hope for Israel is genuine repentance and a return to the Lord.
Jesus identifies himself as that mechanism. He is the king David was meant to be. He is the priest that the priests were meant to be. He is the temple that the Temple was meant to be. He is the one who will lead Israel back to what she was meant to be – a kingdom that loves the Lord her God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loves her neighbor as herself.
This in and of itself is probably enough to put the lid on Jesus’ coffin as far as the religious authorities are concerned, but he steps it up to DEFCON 1 at the end by declaring, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
To refresh your memory, the Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure in Daniel 7. In this vision, the Ancient of Days destroys the great kingdom that oppresses Israel, then he gives all glory and rulership to a man – the Son of Man – who rules forever. Within the confines of the vision, this figure is identified as faithful Israel.
Jesus appropriates this title and image for himself. He is faithful Israel – the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. He declares himself to be this apocalyptic figure who is faithful Israel who will be given all authority when God destroys Israel’s oppressors. And because he has all authority, he is lord of the Sabbath. If David gets to decide what is and isn’t lawful on the Sabbath, how much more so does Jesus, the Son of Man, the epitome of faithful Israel and her true king whose authority will last forever?
If you find yourself debating what is and isn’t lawful to do on Sunday, I highly recommend you omit Jesus’ last point from your argument.
But it works for Jesus, and as is typical of his rhetorical mastery, he takes the objections of the learned and turns it around on them. What began as an accusation of breaking the Sabbath has ended as a declaration of war. And hope. Bad news for those who are benefiting from the current power structure; gospel for everyone else.
- If Jesus has authority over the Law itself, how does this affect how we understand and interpret the Law? How does it affect the role, if any, the Law has in your life, today?
- Does the church face a scenario, today, where there are powerful leaders who observe outward obedience but have made allies with the worldly powers that be? Does this passage imply a message to them? How do you think they would respond?