In Matthew 12:1-8, we have an interesting story of Jesus and his disciples walking through grain fields. As they walked through the field, the disciples were hungry and began to pick some grain to eat. The only part that seems odd about the situation is that the Pharisees were following them. It does not seem like they were traveling with the group but were far enough away to see. An interesting side note here is that there are always those people who will refuse to be a part of the group choosing instead to standoff in the distance watching for someone to make a mistake. Typically, this is done in a sad attempt to justify their refusal to join the group. Believe me, the world and church are full of people who are standing aloof looking for a reason to say, “See I told you those Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.”
These Pharisees watched as the disciples began to eat the grain. To our modern minds, it seems like a silly thing to have a problem with this but for the Pharisees, this was important. It was the Sabbath and any work done on the Sabbath was forbidden. The Pharisees had been successful as a religious movement and had gained a lot of followers. The attraction should be easily understood. They wanted to go back to God’s word and simply do what it says. The problem was that they took it too far, as we often do. They had come up with rules for just about every aspect of life. As Jesus said in Matthew 23:4, they were quick to place heavy burdens on someone else’s shoulders, all in the desire to help them to become more righteous. Yet, they were unwilling to move a finger to follow these rules for themselves.
The Pharisees approach Jesus with their accusations. Your disciples are breaking the law and you are doing nothing about it. In response to their complaints, Jesus gives them two examples to help them think about their position on the Sabbath.
The first example comes from David in 1 Samuel 21:1-9. In this story, David lies to the priest of God, eats the showbread that was reserved for the priests only, and walks away with the sword of Goliath. In all honesty, he was running for his life from King Saul and was desperate.
The second example came from temple worship, something they could see happening every week. He reminds them how the priests are always busy on the Sabbath, working on the very day that God told them to honor.
Jesus says that the priests are guiltless in breaking the Sabbath and implies David’s innocence as well. Why? How in the world could Jesus say they were guiltless?
The key to understanding this passage is found in the phrase, “something greater than the temple is here.” Most will say that this is a reference to Jesus himself being greater than the temple and thus the only one capable of truly understanding and applying God’s law. But what if the “something greater” is the needs of someone else? In the example of David, the great need of David and his men outweighed the command concerning the holy bread. In the example of the priesthood, the command to serve the people outweighed the command to honor the Sabbath. In both cases, it seems like the “something greater” was a concern for the welfare of others. Jesus even quotes Hosea 6:6 (I desire mercy and not sacrifice) and says that if they knew what that meant they would not be so quick to condemn others. When asked, what command was the most important Jesus says it was about loving God and loving others (Matt. 22:34-35).
So, what is the point?
There are always people watching from the sidelines, looking for a reason to reject Jesus’ call. There are always people who are more concerned with knowing and following the rules thana genuine love for others. And, just as important, what God really wants for us is to care about each other, to be sympathetic to each other’s needs, and to avoid passing harsh judgment.
This is especially important in today’s time and as we start a new year. What the world needs are more people who are more concerned for them than whether they are doing everything perfectly.