Matthew writes to disciples who believe their principles of biblical interpretation differ radically from those of the Pharisees (5:20; 9:13), and he has a crucial hermeneutical point to make in this narrative (12:7). He uses two of Mark's sabbath controversy stories to illustrate the conflict between Jesus' rest and the Pharisees' rest (11:28). This conflict over the nature of the sabbath further illustrates two entirely different approaches to the law (5:20); because Jesus is himself the embodiment of divine Wisdom, his yoke brings rest (11:28). These Pharisees illustrate the principle that Jesus was "hidden . . . from the wise and learned" (11:25); may we who fancy ourselves wise choose to learn from the humble.
Some culturally conservative churches today interpret the Bible the way the Pharisees in this passage do, building an ever tighter fence around the strictest interpretation of the law to keep from breaking it. Thus, for example, I have known firsthand of some that misconstrue Scripture to condemn all divorced people, women's wearing slacks to church, music relevant to youth, and anything else that violates their tradition. Conservatives can dishonor God's Word through abuse and neglect just as liberals can dishonor it through neglect and rejection. Jesus instead pursued the point of biblical texts in the situation in which they were written (19:8). The principles of God's Word actually demand far more from us than extrapolated rules: they demand the absolute integrity of our hearts before God, summoning us to devote all our actions and thoughts to his glory (5:17-48). Perhaps some Christians take refuge primarily in legal debates because we lack the courage to pursue a genuine relationship with the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. This narrative illustrates various points about biblical interpretation.
Jesus' Opponents Interpret the Law Narrowly (12:1-2)
These Pharisees provide a good example if one wants to extrapolate the letter of the law; what they miss is the law's intention. Moses explicitly forbade work on the sabbath (for example, Ex 31:13-14; 35:2; Ezek 20:20), and gleaning from another's field (normally permissible-Deut 23:25; Ruth 2:2) could certainly be regarded as work, as a form of "reaping" (prohibited in m. Sabbat 7:2). Essenes (probably the strictest Jewish sabbath keepers) forbade so much as scooping up drinking water in a vessel (CD 11.1-2).
Yet just as Pharisees could disagree among themselves on some details of sabbath law (t. Sabbat 16:21-22), a Jewish teacher who rejected Pharisaic tradition could have interpreted the law quite differently from the Pharisees, as Jesus did. Whereas the law forbade preparing food on the sabbath (Ex 16:22-30; 35:3; Jos. War 2.147; CD 10.9), it certainly did not forbid eating it, and Jewish tradition prohibited fasting on the sabbath (CD 11.4-5; Jub. 50:12-13). Here Jesus is not a lawbreaker. Rather, that his opponents wish to kill him by the end of the narrative indicates their own unfaithfulness to the law (see comment on 12:14)!
Jesus' Ethics Are More Biblically Sensitive (12:3-8)
Because Jesus differed with their tradition, these Pharisees apparently assumed that he differed with Scripture (the way some people today identify Scripture with their tradition, calling even fellow Bible believers "liberals"). As these Pharisees well knew, a challenge to the behavior of the disciples was a challenge to the teacher who was responsible to train them in proper behavior (compare Goodman 1983:79; Daube 1972:4-6). Yet in his honor-dominated culture, Jesus was quite able to respond to their challenges and defeat them at their own game. Haven't you read . . . ? (compare 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31) is a strong insult against those who claim to be Scripture experts.
Jesus' first example is the story of a breach of the law for David in an emergency-the man of God and his companions were hungry (12:3-4; see 1 Sam 21:1-6). Although Jesus' opponents may have insisted on beginning with an explicit legal text, he appeals instead to inspired narrative-a Bible story-to show how God expected legal statements to be qualified in practice. Jesus thus challenges his opponents' entire method of legal interpretation. When we fail to take into account the nature of many of Jesus' teachings (radical, succinct statements usually unqualified) by comparing them with the narratives (such as Jesus' relative patience with his disciples in not repudiating them), we repeat the mistake of Jesus' opponents (except that Jesus' opponents were more justified in their mistake, since we often treat as law texts that are not even legal statements).
Jesus' second example is the law's explicit allowance for sabbath activity of priests in the temple (Mt 12:5-8; see Num 28:9-10). After making his argument by example, Jesus proceeds with a traditional Jewish "how much more" argument. Others constructed similar arguments; for instance, an early-second-century rabbi contended that saving a human life takes precedence over the sabbath, for even the temple service overrides the sabbath (t. Sabbat 15:16). Others reasoned similarly from the biblical fact that the temple service overrode sabbath regulations (compare m. `Erubin 10:11-15). The way ancient lawyers argued for exceptions was by showing that at least one exception was already implicit in the law (Quint. 7.6.5). Yet Jesus ranks not saving a life but his own authority above the temple: if the temple service warrants suspension of the sabbath, how much more the presence of one greater than the temple (12:6, 41-42). For Jesus as Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus' self-claim was veiled enough to prevent legal charges of blasphemy but obvious enough to enrage his opponents (see v. 14).
Jesus' third argument to validate his interpretation method is an appeal to the prophets' proclamation: the law's principles take precedence over its rituals (v. 7; compare Hos 6:6). Everyone acknowledged that an emergency need, such as a human life endangered (CD 11.16-17), warranted an exception to any ritual; but Jesus makes such exceptions the rule. Not merely human life but human need in general takes precedence over regulations. Kindness in response to others' genuine need-such as disciples' hunger-precedes rules whose purpose is to please the God who values such kindness more highly (compare 9:13). (As a modern example, many Christians today would look with disfavor on another Christian who, having only her tithe money and finding that her neighbors had no food, would use it to feed them.) With this third argument Jesus has appealed to all three sections of the Old Testament, treating them with equal authority: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. (Later rabbis also liked to produce proofs from all three divisions-for example, b. `Aboda Zara 19b.)
A Healing Vindicates Jesus on the Sabbath (12:9-13)
Accounts of the healing of withered or paralyzed hands always suggested great power both in Jewish (1 Kings 13:6; Test. Simeon 2:12-13) and pagan (F. Grant 1953:56) texts. Jesus heals partly to attest God's endorsement of his ministry (Mt 9:4-7); would God heal through him on the sabbath if God disapproved of his sabbath ministry?
But before healing the man, Jesus offers another "how much more" argument by analogy. In contrast to the stricter Essenes (CD 11.13-14; compare F. Bruce 1969:73), Pharisees and most Jewish people accepted the necessity of rescuing an animal on the Sabbath (compare Theissen 1978:82). Yet how much more important is a person than a sheep (see comment on 6:26)! Jesus concludes with a summary principle: Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (v. 12).
Violating Religious Custom in Favor of God's Will (12:14)
That God's law was not genuinely written in these Pharisees' hearts is clear from their hostile response to Jesus' violation of their tradition (vv. 10, 14). Blatant breaches of sabbath law were punishable by public execution (Ex 31:14; 35:2; Num 15:35), but Rome prohibited its subjects from executing criminals directly. Even the ultra-strict Essenes in practice punished even intentional sabbath infringements only with detention (see E. Sanders 1990:18-19).
Jewish teachers disagreed among themselves to what extent physicians might work on the sabbath if life was not in danger. But Jesus acted as a man of prayer, not a pharmacist, and this time he does not even lay hands on the man, which some might have considered work. Instead he simply orders the man to stretch forth his hand, an act that was not considered work; God alone performs "work" in this scene (v. 13). Even the strict majority Pharisaic school in this period, the Shammaites, would have violated their own standards of ethics to have punished Jesus harshly. Although they prohibited prayer for the sick on the sabbath, they never sought to kill the minority school at the time, Hillelite Pharisees, who permitted such prayer on the sabbath (t. Sabbat 16:22; see E. Sanders 1993:268). If these Pharisees are upset-contradicting their own sabbath beliefs-this says more about them than it does about Jesus.
Further, even if these Pharisees are sure that Jesus is wrong, his appeal to Scripture should convince them that his "transgression" is "unintentional." No sect in early Judaism had rules that would have mandated Jesus' death for his sabbath practices. Most would have agreed that plotting to kill someone who disagrees with you is premeditated murder, which the law forbids under penalty of death (Gen 9:5-6; Num 35:29-34; Deut 21:1-9). Thus these Pharisees are so enraged with Jesus that they resort to a heinous and obvious breach of the very law they purport to uphold (12:14). In the same vein, one can recollect numerous examples of religious people today who, defending dogmas true or false, display attitudes toward their opponents that hardly commend their faith in the Bible's law of love.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Jesus was that he was growing popular (9:33-34; 12:23-24)-a situation that might allow his teaching to attract some of the Pharisees' own populist base of support. Perhaps they were like some pious ministers today who grow jealous of others' ministries.
These Pharisees undoubtedly felt they had good reason to reject Jesus' claims. If someone were working miracles without God's approval-and how could he have God's approval if he disagreed with God's Word?-then they could only conclude that he was doing supernatural feats as a magician by the devil's power (12:24). Many Christians today defend doctrines or ideas that they insist are scriptural even though they have never seriously examined them in the Scriptures for themselves; they merely pass on what they have learned from others. Unlike those Christians, the Pharisees were at least biblically literate.
Click the button below to continue.
Upgrade to the best Bible Gateway experience! With Bible Gateway Plus, you gain instant access to a digital Bible study library, including complete notes from the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and the Believer's Bible Commentary. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.