Matthew 12:1-8


In Matt. 12 we read the history of a series of crucial events in the life of Jesus. In every man’s life there are decisive moments, times and events on which the whole of his life hinges. This chapter presents us with the story of such a period in the life of Jesus. In it we see the orthodox Jewish religious leaders of the day coming to their final decision regarding Jesus–and that was rejection. It was not only rejection in the sense that they would have nothing to do with him; it was rejection in the sense that they came to the conclusion that nothing less than his complete elimination would be enough.

Here in this chapter we see the first definite steps, the end of which could be nothing other than the Cross. The characters are painted clear before us. On the one hand there are the Scribes and the Pharisees, the representatives of orthodox religion. We can see four stages in their increasing attitude of malignant hostility to Jesus.

(i) In Matt. 12:1-8, the story of how the disciples plucked the ears of corn on the Sabbath day, we see growing suspicion. The Scribes and Pharisees regarded with growing suspicion a teacher who was prepared to allow his followers to disregard the minutia of the Sabbath Law. This was the kind of thing which could not be allowed to spread unchecked.

(ii) In Matt. 12:9-14, the story of the healing of the man with the paralysed hand on the Sabbath day, we see active and hostile investigation. It was not by chance that the Scribes and Pharisees were in the synagogue on that Sabbath. Luke says they were there to watch Jesus (Lk.6:7). From that time on Jesus would have to work always under the malignant eye of the orthodox leaders. They would do his steps, like private detectives, seeking the evidence on which they could level a charge against him.

(iii) In Matt. 12:22-32, the story of how the orthodox leaders charged Jesus with healing by the power of the devil, and of how he spoke to them of the sin which has no forgiveness, we see the story of deliberate and prejudiced blindness. From that time on nothing Jesus could ever do would be right in the eyes of these men. They had so shut their eyes to God that they were completely incapable of ever seeing his beauty and his truth. Their prejudiced blindness had launched them on a path from which they were quite incapable of ever turning back.

(iv) In Matt. 12:14 we see evil determination. The orthodox were not now content to watch and criticize; they were preparing to act. They had gone into council to find a way to put an end to this disturbing Galilaean. Suspicion, investigation, blindness were on the way to open action.

In face of all this the answer of Jesus is clearly delineated. We can see five ways in which he met this growing opposition.

(i) He met it with courageous defiance. In the story of the healing of the man with the paralysed hand (Matt. 12:9-14) we see him deliberately defying the Scribes and Pharisees. This thing was not done in a corner; it was done in a crowded synagogue. It was not done in their absence; it was done when they were there with deliberate intent to formulate a charge against him. So far from evading the challenge, Jesus is about to meet it head on.

(ii) He met it with warning. In Matt. 12:22-32 we see Jesus giving the most terrible of warnings. He is warning those men that, if they persist in shutting their eyes to the truth of God, they are on the way to a situation where, by their own act, they will have shut themselves out from the grace of God. Here Jesus is not so much on the defence as on the attack. He makes quite clear where their attitude is taking them.

(iii) He met it with a staggering series of claims. He is greater than the Temple (Matt. 12:6), and the Temple was the most sacred place in all the world. He is greater than Jonah, and no preacher ever produced repentance so amazingly as Jonah did (Matt. 12:41). He is greater than Solomon, and Solomon was the very acme of wisdom (Matt. 12:42). His claim is that there is nothing in spiritual history than which he is not greater. There are no apologies here; there is the statement of the claims of Christ at their highest.

(iv) He met it with the statement that his teaching is essential. The point of the strange parable of the Empty House (Matt. 12:43-45) is that the Law may negatively empty a man of evil, but only the gospel can fill him with good. The Law therefore simply leaves a man an empty invitation for all evil to take up its residence within his heart; the gospel so fills him with positive goodness that evil cannot enter in. Here is Jesus, claim that the gospel can do for men what the Law can never do.

(v) Finally, he met it with an invitation. Matt. 12:46-50 are in essence an invitation to enter into kinship with him. These verses are not so much a disowning of Jesus’ own kith and kin as an invitation to all men to enter into kinship with him, through the acceptance of the will of God, as that will has come to men in him. They are an invitation to abandon our own prejudices and self-will and to accept Jesus Christ as Master and Lord. If we refuse, we drift farther away from God; if we accept, we enter into the very family and heart of God.


Matt. 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath day. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look you, your disciples are doing that which it is not permitted to do on the Sabbath day.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David and his friends did, when he was hungry–how he went into the house of God and ate the shewbread, which it was not permissible for him, nor for his friends to cat, but which the priests alone may eat? Or, have you not read in the Law that the priests profane the Sabbath, and yet remain blameless? I tell you that something greater than the Temple is here. But, if you had known the meaning of the saying, `It is mercy that I wish, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned those who are blameless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

(The last phrase should perhaps be translated: “For man is master of the Sabbath.”)

In Palestine in the time of Jesus the cornfields and the cultivated lands were laid out in long narrow strips; and the ground between the strips was always a right of way. It was on one of these strips between the cornfields that the disciples and Jesus were walking when this incident happened.

There is no suggestion that the disciples were stealing. The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveller was entitled to do just what the disciples were doing, so long as he only used his hands to pluck the ears of corn, and did not use a sickle: “When you go into your neighbours standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbours standing grain” (Deut.23:25). W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book tells how, when he was travelling in Palestine, the same custom still existed. One of the favourite evening dishes for the traveller is parched corn. “When travelling in harvest time,” Thomson writes, “my muleteers have very often prepared parched corn in the evenings after the tent has been pitched. Nor is the gathering of these green ears for parching ever regarded as stealing….
So, also, I have seen my muleteers, as we passed along the wheat fields, pluck off the ears, rub them in their hands, and eat the grains unroasted, just as the apostles are said to have done.”

In the eyes of the Scribes and Pharisees, the fault of the disciples was not that they had plucked and eaten the grains of corn, but that they had done so on the Sabbath. The Sabbath Law was very complicated and very detailed. The commandment forbids work on the Sabbath day; but the interpreters of the Law were not satisfied with that simple prohibition. Work had to be defined. So thirty-nine basic actions were laid down, which were forbidden on the Sabbath, and amongst them were reaping, winnowing and threshing, and preparing a meal. The interpreters were not even prepared to leave the matter there. Each item in the list of forbidden works had to be carefully defined. For instance, it was forbidden to carry a burden. But what is a burden? A burden is anything which weighs as much as two dried figs. Even the suggestion of work was forbidden; even anything which might symbolically be regarded as work was prohibited.
Later the great Jewish teacher, Maimonides, was to say, “To pluck ears is a kind of reaping.” By their conduct the disciples were guilty of far more than one breach of the Law. By plucking the corn they were guilty of reaping; by rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing; by separating the grain and the chaff they were guilty of winnowing; and by the whole process they were guilty of preparing a meal on the Sabbath day, for everything which was to be eaten on the Sabbath had to be prepared the day before.

The orthodox Jews took this Sabbath Law with intense seriousness. The Book of Jubilee has a chapter (chapter 50) about the keeping of the Sabbath. Whoever lies with his wife, or plans to do anything on the Sabbath, or plans to set out on a journey (even the contemplation of work is forbidden), or plans to buy or sell, or draws water, or lifts a burden is condemned. Any man who does any work on the Sabbath (whether the work is in his house or in any other place), or goes a journey, or tills a farm, any man who lights a fire or rides any beast, or travels by ship at sea, any man who strikes or kills anything, any man who catches an animal, a bird, or a fish, any man who fasts or who makes war on a Sabbath–the man who does these things shall die. To keep these commandments was to keep the Law of God; to break them was to break the Law of God.

There is no doubt whatever that, from their own point of view, the Scribes and Pharisees were entirely justified in finding fault with the disciples for breaking the Law, and with Jesus for allowing them, if not encouraging them, to do so.


Matt. 12:1-8 (continued)

To meet the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees Jesus put forward three arguments.

(i) He quoted the action of David (1Sam.21:1-6) on the occasion when David and his young men were so hungry that they went into the tabernacle–not the Temple, because this happened in the days before the Temple was built–and ate the shewbread, which only the priests could eat. The shewbread is described in Lev.24:5-9. It consisted of twelve loaves of bread, which were placed every week in two rows of six in the Holy Place. No doubt they were a symbolic offering in which God was thanked for his gift of sustaining food. These loaves were changed every week, and the old loaves became the perquisite of the priests and could only be eaten by them. On this occasion, in their hunger, David and his young men took and ate those sacred loaves, and no blame attached to them. The claims of human need took precedence over any ritual custom.

(ii) He quoted the Sabbath work of the Temple. The Temple ritual always involved work–the kindling of fires, the slaughter and the preparation of animals, the lifting of them on to the altar, and a host of other things. This work was actually doubled on the Sabbath, for on the Sabbath the offerings were doubled (compare e.g. Num.28:9). Any one of these actions would have been illegal for any ordinary person to perform on the Sabbath day. To light a fire, to slaughter an animal, to lift it up on to the altar would have been to break the Law, and hence to profane the Sabbath. But for the priests it was perfectly legal to do these things, for the Temple worship must go on. That is to say, worship offered to God took precedence of an the Sabbath rules and regulations.

(iii) He quoted God’s word to Hosea the prophet: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos.6:6). What God desires far more than ritual sacrifice is kindness, the spirit which knows no law other than that it must answer the call of human need.

In this incident Jesus lays it down that the claim of human need must take precedence of all other claims. The claims of worship, the claims of ritual, the claims of liturgy are important but prior to any of them is the claim of human need.

One of the modern saints of God is Father George Potter who, out of the derelict Church of St. Chrysostom’s in Peckham, made a shining light of Christian worship and Christian service. To further the work he founded the Brotherhood of the Order of the Holy Cross, whose badge was the towel which Jesus Christ wore when he washed his disciples’ feet. There was no service too menial for the brothers to render; their work for the outcast and for homeless boys with a criminal record or criminal potentialities is beyond all praise. Father Potter held the highest possible ideas of worship; and yet when he is explaining the work of the Brotherhood he writes of anyone who wishes to enter into its triple vow of poverty, chastity and obedience: “He mustn’t sulk if he cannot get to Vespers on the Feast of St. Thermogene. He may be sitting in a police court waiting for a `client’. . . . He mustn’t be the type who goes into the kitchen and sobs just because we run short of incense. . . .
We put prayer and sacraments first. We know we cannot do our best otherwise, but the fact is that we have to spend more time at the bottom of the Mount of Transfiguration than at the top.” He tells about one candidate who arrived, when he was just about to give his boys a cup of cocoa and put them to bed. “So I said, `Just clean round the bath will you while it’s wet?’ He stood aghast and stuttered, `I didn’t expect to clean up after dirty boys!’ Well, well! His life of devoted service to the Blessed Master lasted about seven minutes. He did not unpack.” Florence Allshorn, the great principal of a women’s missionary college, tells of the problem of the candidate who always discovers that her time for quiet prayer has come just when there are greasy dishes to be washed in not very warm water.

Jesus insisted that the greatest ritual service is the service of human need. It is an odd thing to think that, with the possible exception of that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, we have no evidence that Jesus ever conducted a church service in all his life on earth, but we have abundant evidence that he fed the hungry and comforted the sad and cared for the sick. Christian service is not the service of any liturgy or ritual; it is the service of human need. Christian service is not monastic retiral; it is involvement in all the tragedies and problems and demands of the human situation. Whittier had it rightly:

“O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
For he whom Jesus loved hath truly spoken;
The holier worship which he deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.”

That is what we mean–or ought to mean–when we say, “Let us worship God!”


Matt. 12:1-8 (continued)

There remains in this passage one difficulty which it is not possible to solve with absolute certainty. The difficulty lies in the last phrase, “For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” This phrase can have two meanings.

(i) It may mean that Jesus is claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, in the sense that he is entitled to use the Sabbath as he thinks fit. We have seen that the sanctity of the work of the Temple surpassed and over-rode the Sabbath rules and regulations; Jesus has just claimed that something greater than the Temple is here in him; therefore he has the right to dispense with the Sabbath regulations and to do as he thinks best on the Sabbath day. That may be said to be the traditional interpretation of this sentence, but there are real difficulties in it.

(ii) On this occasion Jesus is not defending himself for anything that he did on the Sabbath; he is defending his disciples; and the authority which he is stressing here is not so much his own authority as the authority of human need. And it is to be noted that when Mark tells of this incident he introduces another saying of Jesus as part of the climax of it: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk.2:27).

To this we must add the fact that in Hebrew and Aramaic the phrase son of man is not a title at all, but simply a way of saying a man. When the Rabbis began a parable, they often began it: “There was a son of man who…”; when we would simply say, “There was a man who . . .” The Psalmist writes, “What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Ps.8:4). Again and again the Ezekiel God addresses Ezekiel as son of man. “And he said to me: `Son of man, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you'” (Eze.2:1; compare Eze.2:6; Eze.2:8; Eze.3:1,4; Eze.3:17,25). In all these cases son of man, spelled without the capital letters, simply means man.

In the (early and best) Greek manuscripts of the New Testament all the words were written completely in capital letters. In these manuscripts (called uncials) it would not be possible to tell where special capitals are necessary. Therefore, in Matt. 12:8, it may well be that son of man should be written without capital letters, and that the phrase does not refer to Jesus but simply to man.

If we consider that what Jesus is pressing is the claims of human need; if we remember that it is not himself but his disciples that he is defending; if we remember that Mark tells us that he said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; then we may well conclude that what Jesus said here is: “Man is not the slave of the Sabbath; he is the master of it, to use it for his own good.” Jesus may well be rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees for enslaving themselves and their fellow-men with a host of tyrannical regulations; and he may well be here laying down the great principle of Christian freedom, which applies to the Sabbath as it does to all other things in life.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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