3 October 2016

Matthew 12:1-8

“When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him ‘Look your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.’” (v. 2)

Psalm: Psalm 19


No-one can deny that Jesus was not controversial in his relationships with the Pharisees. In today's passage he comes head to head with them over how the people ought to behave on the sabbath.

The Pharisees laid down very strict rules about what was and was not allowed by the faithful people between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday. It was not only the activity listed in this passage, walking through the grain field and actually eating what was found there, but the undertaking of any work at all was quite strictly forbidden. Jesus seeing the sabbath not as a day of restriction but as a day of goodwill and rejoicing had, according to those rules, comparative freedom regarding the rules laid down by the Jewish authorities.

In contrast to the way in which the Gospels of Mark and Luke dealt with this incident, Matthew's Gospel (which was focused particularly on the Jewish community) faces it head on. There is no apology for what the complainants had regarded as sinful behaviour, but Jesus points them straight to the law itself. There it was agreed that the necessities of the temple service made it necessary for the priests to break a sabbath regulation -  for example, they had to reap a sheaf for the ritual on the second day of Passover, even if this happened to be a sabbath. Jesus is inferring here that such reaping is not just for the benefit of temple rituals but can also be to feed those who are hungry. He finishes what he says with words which must have shocked his hearers, especially the temple authorities: "for the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath" (v. 8).

Clearly over the centuries the restrictions of the law have taken over from the words in Genesis that on the seventh day God rested, blessed it and hallowed it as God had completed the work done in creation (Genesis 2:1-3). Although the restrictions within the Church over the ages were never quite as restrictive as those imposed by the Pharisees, even in our own lifetime there will be memories of no shops or sports venues open on Sundays, children forbidden to play in the street, family walks the main form of outdoor activity. I suspect there were even people frowned upon for hanging nappies on the washing line on Sundays, even thought it might have been necessary for the comfort of the baby. When Jesus says "the sabbath was made for humankind" (Mark 2:27), he is indicating that the sabbath is to be a blessing for people not a restriction, hence Jesus' challenge to the Pharisees in the words we read from Matthew today.

To Ponder

  • Sabbath restrictions have in recent years in this country been almost totally been forgotten. Has the secular take-over of Sundays gone too far? Where do you think the balance should be?
  • How can the Church draw the people back to understanding Sunday as a day set aside for relaxation and for prayer?

Bible notes author

The Revd Pat Billsborrow

Pat Billsborrow is a supernumerary minister in the Northwich and Winsford Circuit, and is at present part of a district ministry team working within that circuit with pastoral care of four churches. She is ecumenical officer in the Cheshire part of the Chester and Stoke on Trent Methodist District.