Lawful to do Good: Matthew 12:9-14

He left that place and entered their synagogue; 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. 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? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Jesus and his followers were just out in a field, and this becomes the setting for a little verbal contest between Jesus and the Pharisees that ends up with a pretty controversial claim by Jesus: that he is the Son of Man, that he is greater than the Temple, and as such, the Sabbath laws are subservient to him (and all mankind, as it happens) and not the other way around.

From a narrative standpoint, that makes this passage interesting, because Jesus leaves the field to go into the Pharisees’ synagogue.  If you flip these two passages around, it seems like it would make more sense: he goes into the synagogue, has a disagreement with them about healing on the Sabbath, they leave and the miffed Pharisees follow them, they have the field incident, and Jesus goes to DEFCON1.

Matthew, however, has these passages in a different order.  Jesus’ boldest claims come first, out in a field where there happen to be some Pharisees watching him, and then he packs up and goes to their church.  I’m not sure why this is the sequence other than the default, “This is how it happened.”  Matthew clearly intends this passage to follow the previous one, as it says “their synagogue,” and the “their” would seem to indicate the Pharisees from the previous passage.  So, it’s not like we had two, separate stories and they just got redacted weirdly.  It may be that it’s as simple as these things just happening in this sequence.

Well, whether Matthew deliberately arranged them this way or whether he’s just going off memories of how it happened and this is how it happened, he presents a Jesus who has a lot of guts.  Imagine getting into it with a group of Westboro Baptist protesters and saying things that drive them into a rage, and then going, “Hey, I think I’ll go to your church this afternoon.”

Although Jesus does not make the radical claims he made in the field, the situation he addresses is more dire.  Here, it isn’t simply a matter of eating when one is hungry.  We have a man with a withered (xeran – dried up) hand.  Jesus does what Jesus does, which is heal him, thus signifying that he is Israel’s Messiah who has brought the restoration and reclamation of Israel, forgiving their sins in God’s name and overturning their curse.

But he does this on Saturday.  These Pharisees anticipate this.  They even ask Jesus a leading question.  Once again, this makes the sequence of these passages puzzling to me because Jesus just harvested grain on the Sabbath and gave some pretty radical reasons why he was justified in doing so.  Obviously, the Pharisees here are trying to nail Jesus for violating the Torah; they aren’t genuinely curious about his views.  But still.  They already have puh-LENTY of evidence to nail him for blasphemy and disregarding the Law of Moses.  This seems unnecessary.  But, hey, he’s already in your synagogue, I guess there’s no reason not to try to rack up a few more incidents to share with the Sanhedrin.

Jesus answers them with an argument that is much less theological in nature than the field conversation.  Here, he meets the objection basically by saying, “Don’t you condone working on the Sabbath to get your ox out of a ditch?  Isn’t this more important than that?  Doing good on the Sabbath is totally legal.”

There may be a subtle dig at the Pharisee’s love of money, here.  Getting your ox out of a ditch is mostly about economics in the first century and less so about animal rights.  You use an ox to grow food and transport goods.  If your ox is stuck, you can’t do that.  Jesus is using a hypothetical example where the Pharisees’ livelihood is in jeopardy on the Sabbath – the implication being that of course they would fix that.

But here we have an Israelite, and not just any Israelite, but a faithful one who is in the synagogue.  These are the people that the religious leaders are supposed to be valuing, caring for, sacrificing for, helping, etc.  They are supposed to be far more valuable to the Pharisees than an ox, not only because a human being is more important than an ox, but specifically because these are the people that Israel’s leaders have been given charge over.

Jesus is a pretty clever dude when you think about it.  This was supposed to be an opportunity for the Pharisees to trap him, but he has trapped them.  “You would get your ox out of a ditch, wouldn’t you?  So, wouldn’t you want to help a faithful Israelite?  Your own people whom God gave you charge over?  You want me to help faithful Israelites, right?  Or do you think your oxen are more valuable than your own people?”

Clever, clever.

What is at stake, here, is exactly the sort of thing that got Israel in trouble in the first place.  One of the characteristics of Israel that invoked the curse of the Law is exactly this – Israel’s leaders valuing their possessions while treating their people like crap.

There are lots of passages about this.  The entire book of Malachi comes to mind.  Zechariah’s portrayal of a shepherd.  Perhaps one of the more direct referents is Ezekiel 34.  Here’s how that chapter begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4, NRSV (Emphasis mine)

Jesus is doing what the Pharisees and other leaders in Israel should have been doing this whole time.  The Pharisees won’t strengthen, heal, or bind up the injured, because they’re being “righteous” – keeping the Sabbath laws.  But God wants mercy and not sacrifice, and Jesus will heal this man, thus showing who the true shepherd of Israel is.  Jesus is God shepherding Israel, Himself, which is exactly His proposed remedy for the situation.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” – Ezekiel 34:11

I hope this brings into clearer focus some of Jesus’ imagery about sheep and shepherds, but that’s not in our passage, today.

Whenever we hear Jesus talking about the Law, at least in Matthew, we see it as an opportunity for contrast with Israel’s leaders.  They want to know how most thoroughly to observe the regulations.  Jesus wants to teach how the Law can be practiced in a way subservient to the idea that Israel is to love God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength, and also love her neighbor as herself.  If your practice of the Law causes you to do those two things, you are practicing the Law rightly in Jesus’ mind.  If your practice of the Law causes you to drift from those things, God doesn’t care at all for what you are doing, and He will not be impressed by your technical legal obedience.

You may protest, “But isn’t a zeal for keeping the Law loving God?  And isn’t confronting people with their shortcomings loving them?”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m almost positive this was a common thing to hear from Pharisees.

Because, according to Jesus, no, it isn’t.  These people kept the Sabbath and jumped on people who didn’t, and Jesus did not interpret this as an act of love for God or man.  These people strenuously tried to comply with God’s Law and just as strenuously pointed out Israelites who did not, and Jesus thought of this as oppression and pride – markers that you belonged to the present evil age.  He did not interpret it as love, no matter how you spun it, theologically.

That’s something to consider, isn’t it?  God’s perspective isn’t that zealous pursuit of His commandments and calling others out on their sin is intrinsically loving.  It is only loving if such pursuits enable you to demonstrate actual love.  Keeping the commandments doesn’t demonstrate you love God.  Calling out the sinful behavior of others doesn’t demonstrate you love them.  Those things can be done in a loving way but they only are loving if you are actually loving.

The Pharisees are the ones who zealously want to keep the Sabbath and enforce the Law.  Jesus is the one who says, “I know what the Law says, but this guy needs to be healed.  My violation of the Sabbath is lawful because I am doing good for this man, regardless of what the letter of the commandment is.”

That’s something to consider, indeed.

Consider This (Indeed)

  1. Are there instances where you or the Church in general have zealously pursued obedience to the letter of a commandment from God, and it resulted in keeping you from demonstrating love? (Reminder: Obeying the Law and pointing out sin is not inherently an act of love.)
  2. If loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the controlling principles of obeying God, even superseding what might seem to us to be obvious ramifications of a commandment, does that affect how we understand obeying certain commandments, practically speaking?



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  1. Pingback: Asking for a Sign: Matthew 16:1-4 | Letters to the Next Creation

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