At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
– Matthew 12:1-14
When I read this passage, the first question that came to mind was: “What are the Pharisees doing in the same grain field as Jesus and the disciples?” It’s pretty obvious they are following Jesus around, watching and waiting for him to put a foot wrong.
One might ask if it’s lawful to stalk a person on the Sabbath.
The second question that came to mind was: “Who do the Pharisees think they’re talking to??” Just in case his words and miracles aren’t enough to give away his identity, Jesus spells it out for them:
- He talks about “what David did”. Jesus is the Son of David, and the Pharisees knew that, at least partly. They had access to the genealogies and would have known about Jesus’ royal lineage.
- He mentions “the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless” – hinting at the fact that Jesus himself is a High Priest (after the order of Melchizedek)
- And then he comes right out and says it: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. The guy the Pharisees are accusing of breaking Sabbath law is the one who wrote the Sabbath law!
To interject a little context: the text quoted above starts with the words “At that time” which begs the question, “At what time?” It was around the time that a lot of people were asking who Jesus really was. John the Baptist’s disciples had just been there, asking “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” It was around the time that Jesus had been scolding his listeners, saying that if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had seen the miracles they were seeing they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. And it was immediately following the time Jesus said these words:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
How many times have I read this and focused on the words “easy” and “light”: the way of following Jesus is a way of joy.
But I’m hearing this last passage in a new way today: “MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.” As opposed to the yoke and the burden imposed by the Pharisees. As opposed to living life under the control of legalists.
The question the Pharisees keep coming back to is: what is lawful on the Sabbath? To find a solid answer, it’s a good idea to look at what the Sabbath law originally said. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is one of the Big 10: the Ten Commandments. The law reads as follows:
“Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy… the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant… You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” – Deut. 5:12-15 [emphases mine]
So keeping the Sabbath Day holy (which means “set apart”) involves resting from the money-making activities of the week and remembering that God has set us free from slavery. It’s a day of peace, of enjoying freedom, of reflecting on the Creator’s goodness, of spending time with friends and family, of eating and relaxing. Exercising this freedom once a week is amazingly effective at preventing workaholism and addiction to things. It is freedom from slavery to the gods of commerce and politics. It is freedom to just be.
This is why I believe Christians should start getting counter-cultural about Sundays in a big way. Not because God is a meddling old grouch who wants to deny us our pleasure on Sunday… but because God has given us an amazing opportunity, once a week, to tell the world where to get off. To be free of the demands of work, school, kids’ activities, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and society in general. To rediscover and enjoy the things that really matter, that make life worth living. To remember that we used to be a slaves to all these things, but God has set us free.
The Sabbath is primarily about freedom. Therefore, as Jesus says, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”. It is lawful to pull an injured animal out of a pit. It is lawful to heal a man with a withered hand. It is lawful to set God’s creatures free from what binds them. That’s what the Sabbath is for.
“…but the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus…”
(is this lawful on the Sabbath?)