Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-8

In Matthew 11:30, Jesus declared “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Elsewhere in the New Testament “yoke” refers to the Jewish law and Jesus considers the Pharisees hypocrites because they tie up heavy burdens for others to carry but they are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:2-4). The two stories in Matthew 12:1-4 are examples of the light burden of Jesus in contrast to the heavy burdens of the Pharisees.

Jesus and his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

Jesus’s disciples pluck some grain on the Sabbath and offend the Pharisees (Matthew 12:1-2)

For a hungry person to plucking grain is not the problem, but  plucking grain violates the Sabbath. Plucking grain is one of the thirty-nine activities which count as work on the Sabbath.

Deuteronomy 23:24-25 allows the poor to pluck grain by hand to satisfy their hunger. Matthew says the disciples are hungry, the verb πεινάω has the sense of having hunger pains, having a strong desire to eat something (not just peckish, as John Nolland puts it).

The Pharisees see this action as intentional breaking Sabbath regulations, and they point this out Jesus expecting him to admonish his disciples for breaking the Sabbath. Remember, the Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens” (23:3-4) by defining what constitutes work on the Sabbath. Although much of this comes from the Mishnah (written about A.D. 250), it is safe to assume in the early first century the Pharisees were already developing Sabbath regulations.

It is important to think of the Pharisees as genuinely wanting to obey God’s Law and their traditions intended to fill in the gaps so that one did not accidentally break the Sabbath Law. They are simply asking “what if?” questions about what may (or may not) constitute work on the Sabbath.

Jesus makes a scriptural argument (Matthew 12:3-5)

He begins with a story from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, David takes bread from the house of God. The bread of the presence (the showbread) was set before the Lord each Sabbath, then the old bread was eaten by the priests (Leviticus 24; Numbers 4:5–8). David stops at the Tabernacles when he is fleeing from King Saul. He needs provisions, so he he asks the priest Ahimelek for bread, but the only bread available is the showbread. This bread was considered holy. Because it was placed in the presence of the Lord for a week, it should only be eaten by a consecrated priest. He also takes Goliath’s sword since he is in need of a weapon.

In later Jewish discussion of this passage, the day David took the bread was the Sabbath. In the original story and in Jesus’s use of that story here in Matthew 12, it is assumed David was within his rights to take both the bread and Goliath’s sword. The writer does not suggest David violated the Law or that taking the bread of the presence was sinful in any way.

David this food not because he and his men are hungry, but because he is David. In the original story, David has authority to order the priest to do something that is not usually done, give the bread to someone who is not a priest. He was likely hungry and in danger as well,

The second part of Jesus’s answer concerns priests who work on the Sabbath. Numbers 28:9-10 indicates a burnt offering was made on the Sabbath, therefore at least some priests are required to work on the day of rest. Nolland wonders about the relevance of this point, but concludes it creates a space for “apparently unlawful behavior” to be justified on other grounds (Matthew, 484).

Jesus is making a “lesser to greater” argument. “Someone greater than the Temple is here now” (Matthew 12:6). If David was permitted to take the showbread on the Sabbath, and the priests are permitted to work on the Sabbath, then Jesus is “within his rights” to also allow his disciples to glean a little food because they are hungry even though it is a technical violation of the Sabbath rules.

If the Pharisees understood Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples (Matthew 12:7).

Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” when the Pharisees condemned him for eating with tax collectors and other sinners (Matt 9:9-12). In the original context the emphasis was on treatment of the poor and needy, mercy to those in need of mercy is more important that proper sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus applied that to the tax collectors and other sinners who were responding to his message. Now Jesus extends mercy to the poor, little ones (his disciples) who are hungry and want a little food on the Sabbath. They are not harvesting a field to sell the wheat and make money; they are trying to get a little food to stave off their hunger. For Jesus, this is not a violation of the spirit of the Sabbath laws.

Jesus also says his disciples are guiltless. Although the word ἀναίτιος is rare in the New Testament, it is used in Acts 16:37 when Paul tells the magistrates in Philippi, he has not down anything to deserve punishment. In secular Greek it is used for someone who is not responsible or is exempt from blame (BrillDAG). The verb translated “condemn’ (καταδικάζω) is a legal term as well, to condemn someone is to find them guilty of a violation of law. in LXX Psalm 36:33 (ET 37:33) the Lord will not let the righteous “be condemned when brought to trial.”

Who gets to interpret the Sabbath laws and decide what is permissible on the Sabbath? The Pharisees claim that role, but Jesus concludes his answer to them by declaring that he is the Lord of the Sabbath.

Therefore: “The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

Jesus argued David had authority to take the bread set aside for the priests.The Son of Man is greater than David and the priests work on the Sabbath By calling himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” Jesus is claims he is qualified, as the Son of Man, to decide what is permissible on the Sabbath (not the Pharisees). Jesus made a similar point in the Sermon on the Mount. As the Messiah he has the authority to interpret the Law for his disciples.

Matthew does not tell us the reaction of the Pharisees to this stunning declaration. But in the next paragraph the Pharisees ask Jesus about a particular application of Sabbath law in order to accuse him before the Jewish authorities.

4 thoughts on “Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-8

  1. It was when David was fleeing from Saul he gave the bread to his followers who shared in the persecution of the rejected though anointed king.

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