[On Sabbath] God vs. “God vs. Man” (Matthew 12)

Bible opened to Matthew 12 with Green and Black's Organic Mint Dark Chocolate

Today’s Chocolate: Green & Black’s Organic Mint Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassageMatthew 12:1-13

What’s the point of the Sabbath? When we take a day of rest, who do we take it for: ourselves, or God? When the Pharisees raise a fuss over Jesus’ disciples snacking on grain on the Sabbath, these are the questions at the heart of their contention.

I’ll admit: I find it hard to see the situation from the Pharisees’ perspective here. They claim that the disciples’ picking the heads of grain “is not lawful to do on a Sabbath” (12:2); it’s harvesting grain, it’s work. But does it really take any effort to pick grain? Is it laborious? It strikes me as preposterous to think that this could seriously be considered work. They are probably putting forth more energy to walk than to grab the grain. The activity to which the Pharisees object is on the same level of strenuousness as opening a fun size pack of gummi bears.

But Jesus takes their argument seriously. And he counters: “Remember that time King David himself ate the bread that only the priests are allowed to eat? Or hey, how about every single week where the priests are allowed to break the Sabbath to prepare grain offerings and make fresh showbread?” (12:3-4, Contemporary Jackson Ferrell Version). Jesus appears to be arguing for a more common-sense understanding of the Sabbath. And it seems in some ways this common-sense Sabbath was already in practice in 1st-century Judea. The Pharisees present a man with a withered hand to Jesus on the Sabbath, to see if he’ll heal the man. Jesus responds, “If your sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, aren’t you going to go fish it out? And if you’ll do that kind of work for a sheep, isn’t it worth doing for a human being?” (12:12, CJFV). And then he heals the man. On the Sabbath, Jesus maintains, you are allowed to take care of your basic needs, and you are allowed to take care of human suffering and emergencies. If a house caught fire on Saturday, I think Jesus would give firefighters a pass.

Between these two incidents, Jesus pitches his own long-ball claim. He tells the Pharisees: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (12:8). Is the Sabbath intended to secure man’s well-being through rest, or is it intended to honor God through obedience? Jesus’ claim implies that it’s both: the Sabbath is for God and man. Moreover, we don’t have to be fastidious, legalistic or hard-nosed about our Sabbath-keeping. We can, in fact we must, be compassionate about it, because God would not be pleased with anything less.

But in presenting his views on Sabbath, Jesus makes a claim to authority even more audacious than the Pharisees’ views on what snacking constitutes work. The Pharisees claim they’re in the right because the Law is on their side; Jesus claims that he is Lord over the Law. The Sabbath is for God and man because, outrageously, the God who instituted it is also a man.

 

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