7 October 2019

Matthew 12:1-8

‘Something greater than the temple is here.’ (v. 6)

Psalm: Psalm 71:1-16


It is difficult to know who is technically correct about whether Jesus’ hungry disciples had violated religious law by picking and eating grain in the cornfields. A significant aspect of Jewish faith and life is the observance of the sabbath, when certain day-to-day activities are restricted. The underlying motivation is holiness: the commandment of God to his people Israel to "remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8).

There doesn’t seem to have been complete uniformity in understanding how the sabbath should be observed in Judaism in the first century. Jewish people living within Palestine may have been more strictly observant than in the many Jewish diaspora communities (those living outside). There was also an expectation that priests would be more observant of the holiness codes than ordinary people. And one of the distinguishing features of the Pharisees, as a distinct group within Israel at the time of Jesus, was that they endeavoured to observe something akin to the purity code of the priests.

So perhaps the Pharisees are pursuing their genuine concern for deeper holiness among God’s people and pressing Jesus about where he and his disciples stand.

Jesus’s response is startling in its challenge and vehemence. Not only does his story of David, Israel’s greatest king, and the reference to the priestly community, challenge the Pharisees’ basic assumptions about breaking the sabbath. Jesus then re-frames the whole question, by shifting the focus to himself.

In claiming something ‘greater than the"temple is here" (v. 6), and that "the Son of Man is greater than the sabbath" (v. 8), Jesus presses the Pharisees even more strongly to ask whether in him, the possibility of a holy people, constituted by their relationship to a holy God, is being focused and made available in a new way; and whether by being unable to look beyond their own questions and concerns, they might be missing what God is doing and offering among them now.


To Ponder:

  • Do you think of holiness as an important part of Christian identity? In what ways?
  • Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Something greater than the temple is here". What words might Jesus say to you, if he wanted to challenge you to look more deeply for what really matters in your own life?

Bible notes author

The Revd Carole Irwin

Carole is a presbyter in the Methodist Church. She has served in circuits in Folkestone and Bradford, and is currently Director of Studies at Wesley House, Cambridge.

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