A Personal Reflection on Matthew 12:1-8
I confess: Whenever I read this passage, my usual inclination is to agree with the Pharisees, who were quick to criticize Jesus for violating the Sabbath. I identify with how they felt witnessing Jesus and His disciples go against the established law of their time. I am so set on looking at situations through a pair of absolute lenses, primed to measure individual responses as either lawful or unlawful, right or wrong (with no in-betweens) predicated on my definition of what is good and not good. Indeed, this glaring reality jarred me: I get the Pharisees quite well. I am not sure I get Jesus. I have to be intentional in teaching myself to see as He does. Writing this reflection is an attempt to do that.
In this passage, Matthew places three scenes in eight verses, side by side, as his commentary on how Jesus saw the Sabbath. He opens this with the first scene—a story of Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The Pharisees were swift to remark to Him that what they were doing was unlawful. Jesus responded to their accusation with the second scene: An anecdote about David and his companions eating the bread of the Presence in the temple, which they were not supposed to do. He continued speaking to them about the Sabbath through the third scene regarding priests on duty in the temple, working on the Sabbath, but are considered blameless. Then He utters this cryptic statement, “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.”
So what is Jesus implying here? I believe He is saying: The One greater than the temple, that is Me; I am the meaning of what David, the priests, the temple, and even the Sabbath have been pointing to this whole time. He is, in essence, announcing, “I am the One who dwells in the temple. I am the true Temple. I am the Presence. I am Sabbath.”
But the Pharisees could not see Him for who He is. The letter of the law has rendered them blind. They have become fixated on fulfilling the activities of the Sabbath instead of living out the significance of the Sabbath.
Matthew further reveals the Pharisees’ lack of understanding as he writes Jesus quoting Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” along with an observation that if they truly understood what this meant, they would not condemn the guiltless. The disciples of Jesus were guiltless for plucking the heads of the grain on the Sabbath. David and his companions were guiltless for eating the bread of the Presence in the temple. The priests were guiltless for fulfilling their duties in the temple on the Sabbath. Because all these instances were what Sabbath was for.
God did not establish the Sabbath for the sake of the Sabbath. God established the Sabbath for His people. He decreed a day of rest, a day of not working, for the Israelites to look back to the Garden when His Presence rested with His creation. The Sabbath was for His people to look to a time when true life, community, and complete harmony between Creator and creature was the reality. It was for His people to practice trust in their God for provision because total authority rests in Him. It was for His people to look forward to a time when He renews His creation and to anticipate the arrival of ultimate rest, which arrived in Jesus—the new David, the new High Priest, the new temple, the Lord of the Sabbath.
So while the Sabbath prohibited the Israelites from doing work, the point was not about not working but to unlock an opportunity for them to know their God, to actively pursue love, kindness, and generosity towards each other and others around them. It was for His people to see beyond themselves and practice Kingdom-kind of living, showing its actuality to the nations and awaiting its full arrival in the Messiah. The Sabbath was for those who needed true rest—the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the broken, the outcast, the oppressed. The Sabbath was for those, is for those, ready to enter rest in Jesus and to abandon the wandering.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am to announce this rest and seek the good of those who are hurting, suffering, and still wandering in lostness. I am to be love, not a judge examining the black and white lines of the law, lost in the motions of religion. While I am not to abandon His laws, I am also not to neglect His heart. To show mercy is better than sacrifice.
I am to continue the story of Jesus in the lives of others and to take the Sabbath, the Ultimate Rest, to those who need it.
Matthew 11:28-30 (New Living Translation)
28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”