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What did Jesus do when he was verbally attacked?

How did he respond?

And what can we learn from his response?

Let’s look at two back-to-back controversies in which the Pharisees hotly confronted Jesus Christ for his and his disciples’ behavior on the Sabbath.

I encourage you to pause and take a moment to read Matthew 12:1-14, which will be our focus.

Hunger and Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8)

Here is the setting:

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. (12:1)

The disciples were eating some raw grain to satisfy their hunger. Then we read:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (12:2)

It was the Sabbath, the day in the week when the Jewish people were to cease working and rest. You still might wonder why the disciples’ innocuous activity of picking and eating raw grain met with such strong criticism.

Jesus did not abolish the written Law (i.e., Matthew 5:17)— the Torah. However, the Jewish religious leaders had developed a rigorous code of oral rules and regulations, called the Halakhah, which were later written in the Mishnah in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D. These rules and regulations were sometimes referred to as the “traditions” (e.g., Matthew 15:1-6). 

The religious leaders designed these oral “traditions” to govern how Jewish people lived. At first glance, these “traditions” seem legitimate, but were they what God intended? For instance, by picking grain and removing the husk on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), the hungry disciples were accused of “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” According to the technicalities of the “traditions,” the disciples had harvested, threshed, and winnowed a handful of grain.  

Let’s see how Jesus responded.

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 on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one 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.” (12:3-8)

The Pharisees saw everything through the lens of their “traditions.” Did this or that behavior conform to the stringent requirements of their regulations or not? The result was an oppressive burden imposed upon the people.

Jesus Christ skillfully introduced another perspective. He saw through the lens of Scripture with a heart aligned with God’s heart. How did he do that?

First, he related a well-known historical incident in which David and his men fled Saul (1 Samuel 21:1-6). When David asked for bread for himself and his men, Ahimelech, the priest, deemed it a legitimate necessity because of their hunger and gave them some of the consecrated bread— even though David and his men were not priests. Neither Ahimelech nor David is condemned for this action. From this, it is clear that the human necessity of hunger is an exception to the laws regarding consecrated bread.

Second, Jesus points out that the priests in the temple do their priestly work on the Sabbath. This work is a legitimate requirement of their duties (e.g., Numbers 28:9-10). Here is another exception: the necessity of offerings on the Sabbath

Jesus then states: “One greater than the temple is here.” Although the Pharisees are not likely to understand or accept this statement, we are made aware of the Lord’s identity.

He then makes the point that the Pharisees are deficient in their understanding of God’s heart of mercy: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). He then reinforces his identity by stating: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

From the perspective of Jesus Christ, the disciples are not breaking God’s intention regarding the Sabbath; they are fulfilling it. 

Summary: When challenged by the “traditions” of the Pharisees, Jesus responded with Scriptural precedent and principle. He reinforced this with personal authority as the  “one greater than the Temple” and as “the Son of the Man [who] is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Healing and Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14)

The scene now shifts to “their synagogue.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (12:9-10)

This second confrontation keeps alive the conflict about the Sabbath. This time it is not about feeding the hungry but healing. I suspect there would not have been an objection if the healing was a necessary life-saving intervention. But this man’s hand was deformed— it was not immediately life-threatening. What will Jesus do with this “man with the shriveled [deformed, paralyzed] hand”?

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 man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (12:11-12)

It appears that the religious leaders allowed for saving and assisting animals on the Sabbath. If that is the case, saving and assisting a human on the Sabbath is also good because a human is more valuable than an animal.

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. (12:13-14)

The man with the deformed hand responded to the Lord’s request, stretching out his hand, “and it was completely restored.” This would create an additional problem for the Pharisees. What did Jesus “do” that the Pharisees could object to? How did he break the Sabbath law? He did not do “work” by stretching out the man’s hand; the man did that himself. All Jesus did was command the man to stretch out his hand. How could Pharisees object to that?

How could these religious leaders be so blind? The Lord Jesus healed the man’s deformed hand. Instead of an acknowledgment of wonder at God’s power and goodness, they “plotted how they might kill Jesus.” 

Summary: These men would help a sheep on the Sabbath but condemn someone who helped a person. The attitudes and motives of these religious leaders stand in stark contrast to God’s goodness and power. How long had this man been part of “their synagogue,” and how had they helped him? Does this miracle not speak for itself?

What do we learn from this?

Here are five more things that I am learning from these incidents. 

1.     Who is Jesus?

The primary purpose of Matthew is to reveal who Jesus is. From these texts, we learn of his sovereign authority in interpreting the Law in ways intended by God. He is the “one greater than the temple” and “the Son of Man [who] is Lord of the Sabbath.” He can heal with a word.

2.     What is the Law?

As regards humans, the overriding principle of the law is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, quoted in Matthew 22:39 and several other times in the New Testament). No mere “tradition” can legitimately contradict this principle so clearly embedded in Scripture.

In our next post, we will examine what a “tradition” is and how to distinguish between a good and bad “tradition.”

3.     What is your perspective in a conflict?

One’s perspective matters. Where you ‘stand’ makes all the difference in how you view a conflict. 

Here, the issue of the conflict was discerned from two different perspectives by the Pharisees and the Lord. The Pharisees’ viewpoint was from their “traditions”; the Lord’s stance was from Scripture. We need to learn how to stand with the Lord to have his perspective.

4.     How well do you know Scripture and God’s heart?

In confronting the “traditions” of the Pharisees, Jesus exhibits a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture and its context. In a moment, he is able to present relevant and conclusive texts that expose the bankruptcy of the “traditions.” 

The Lord is also profoundly aware of God’s heart for mercy. 

These two qualities require quality time and commitment to our relationship with God and his Scriptures. 

What does this mean for us? In Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber writes that you might be “a bit bloodied intellectually and increasingly aware of how much you do not know,”— but you and I can do something about that. More on that in future posts.

5.     What happens when conflict is not resolved?

Not every conflict is resolved.

In these incidents, the Pharisees have been confronted with the truth. Jesus did not avoid the conflict. To have avoided the conflict would not have benefited the truth, the disciples, the others who observed, or the Pharisees. Each had the opportunity to hear, speak, learn, and, in the end, accept or reject what Jesus said and did. 

The Pharisees rejected what Jesus said and did. Their choice was to “plot how they might kill Jesus.” For Jesus, that would mean persecution, suffering, and death. It might not be any different for us.

What have you got to add? I invite you to send me your comments and questions. You can write me using this link

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Photo credit:  @mycola_adams

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