The Pharisees and Scribes disagreed with Jesus because his teachings and actions differed from theirs. So, they could not accept Jesus as the Messiah or as a prophet from God. Instead, they opposed him and tried to get proof to accuse him. The Pharisees questioned Jesus for violating the Sabbath based on two situations. One was that the disciples plucked and ground grains in their hands on a Sabbath to appease their hunger. The other was that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the same day. Both, according to the Pharisees, were violations of the Sabbath. Jesus taught that the Sabbath is holy, and holiness lies not in denying the necessities of people or avoiding any acts of mercy. Let us give importance to the acts of mercy along with our religious observances.
Picking Grain on the Sabbath
(Matthew 12:1) Soon afterwards Jesus was walking through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples felt hungry, so they began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. (2) When the Pharisees noticed this, they said to Jesus, “Look at your disciples; they are doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath!” (3) Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his men were hungry? (4) He went into the house of God, and ate the bread offered to God, although neither he nor his men had the right to eat it, but only the priests. (5) And have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the Temple break the Sabbath rest, yet they are not guilty? (6) I tell you, there is something greater than the Temple here. (7) If you really knew the meaning of the words: It is mercy I want, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. (8) For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
The Man with a Withered Hand
(9) Jesus then left that place and went into their synagogue. (10) There was a man there with a paralyzed hand. Hoping to find grounds for an accusation against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?” (11) But he said to them, “What if one of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath? Will you not take hold of your sheep and lift it out? (12) But a man is worth much more than a sheep! It is therefore permitted to do good on the Sabbath.” (13) Then Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and it was completely restored, as sound as the other one.
The Evangelist Matthew presents the Pharisees’ accusations against Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath violation. Jesus differed from his opponents on his interpretation of the Sabbath observance. He taught his yoke is easy and light, compared to the yoke that the Scribes and Pharisees imposed on the people. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who work hard and who carry heavy burdens, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). Though God gave laws through Moses, the interpretations, and additions to the laws by the subsequent religious leaders made them burdensome for the people to follow. Religious practices, including Sabbath observance, became wearisome like yoke fitted on the neck of an ox for ploughing. Jesus wanted to free the people from such unnecessary and meaningless burdens. He encouraged them to follow his word that would give them rest and make their burdens light.
Picking Grain on the Sabbath
(Matthew 12:1) Soon afterwards Jesus was walking through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples felt hungry, so they began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.
Jesus and his disciples were walking to a synagogue on the Sabbath day through the footpath of a field ripe with grain. The hunger of the disciples shows how poor Jesus and his companions were. Even when someone is hungry, picking up grains or fruits from another’s property is punishable in the modern understanding. The Israelites were more generous with the hungry because Moses had allowed eating from the neighbor’s field with some restrictions: “If you go through the vineyard of your neighbor, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, but you may not carry any away in a container. If you pass through the standing grain of your neighbor, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing crop.” (Deuteronomy 23:25-26). This was the divine design to take care of the necessities of the poor and the landless. During the sermon on the mountain Jesus taught: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow, they do not harvest nor do they store food in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26). So, the disciples were not stealing from another’s property according to the law. However, the issue was that they did it on a Sabbath.
(2) When the Pharisees noticed this, they said to Jesus, “Look at your disciples; they are doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath!”
The Pharisee in Hebrew means “separate” or “detach” because the Pharisees had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. They were against the Hellenistic influence in the Jewish religion. Besides the laws given through Moses, they developed their own interpretations and applications of the Law. They gave importance to the traditional rituals which were not in the Mosaic laws. The elders of the previous generation developed and handed over such traditions, claiming that they were also of divine origin. The Pharisees originated during the post-exilic times when there was a thirst for maintaining the purity of Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), many of them objected to him because he did not follow their man-made rituals and traditions.
The Pharisees, along with the Sadducees, were Jewish rulers during Jesus’ public ministry. Both groups were members of the Sanhedrin, the seventy-member supreme court that sentenced Jesus. The Pharisees were also leaders of the synagogues, and some were priests. Though Sadducees were the majority in the Sanhedrin and held the position of chief priests and the High Priest, the Pharisees were more influential because they had more popular support and they controlled the synagogues. The reason was, unlike Sadducees, the Pharisees did not favor Hellenism and the Roman rule. Sadducees ceased to exist after the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D.; whereas the Pharisees continued even afterwards and became the founding stone for contemporary Rabbinic Judaism.
The context shows how some Pharisees were closely watching Jesus and his disciples to find fault with them. In Matthew 15:1-2, we read, “Afterwards the disciples gathered around Jesus and said, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you said?’” So, these two groups were emissaries from the Sanhedrin to find fault with Jesus to kill him.
The Pharisees accused Jesus because, according to them, the disciples of Jesus were doing what was unlawful by picking up grain on the Sabbath. According to Exodus 20:8-11, the Israelites had to keep the Sabbath holy and they should refrain from work. If anyone violated that law, they shall kill the person (Numbers 15:32-36). The Pharisees had worked out detailed specifications of what all would involve in the Sabbath violation. Their interpretation was burdensome and had gone far beyond God’s intention and Mosaic teaching.
Luke gives more details of what the disciples did: “his disciples began to pick heads of grain for food, crushing them in their hands and eating them.” (Luke 6:1). The Pharisees interpreted plucking the grain as harvesting, rubbing it in the hands as threshing, separating the husks from the grain as winnowing, and the entire process as preparing meal. Rabbis considered all of them as forbidden on the Sabbath. The Israelites had to prepare the food for the Sabbath on the previous day.
(3) Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his men were hungry?”
Jesus answered by referring to what David and the High Priest who served in the Tabernacle did when David and his companions were hungry (1 Samuel 21:1-7). Feeding the hungry has been a great virtue in the Bible. The criteria Jesus gave for the last judgement starts: “For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.…” (Matthew 25:35). “If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, if thirsty, something to drink.” (Proverbs 25:21). According to Jesus, when someone is desperately in need of food, feeding the hungry should have precedence over the traditional practices.
(4) He went into the house of God, and ate the bread offered to God, although neither he nor his men had the right to eat it, but only the priests.
The event happened after Prophet Samuel anointed David as the King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:13). However, David had not taken charge as the king. He became popular by killing the Philistine giant Goliath. King Saul was envious of David and was searching to assassinate him. If David remained alive, Saul’s son Jonathan could not claim kingship (1Samuel 20:31). For fear of King Saul, David and his companions were running and hiding for safety. David could not find any food for himself and his friends. The only solution he found was to approach Ahimelech, the High Priest, who served in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was in Nob because this happened before David shifted it to Jerusalem and before the construction of the Temple. When David asked for food, the priest had nothing left except the showbread.
God had instructed Moses to build a table of acacia wood covered with gold plate on which the priests shall set 12 loaves of Bread of Presence (Exodus 25:23–30). Priests placed this table in the Holy Place of the tabernacle outside the Holy of Holies. The priests had to replace the bread on every Sabbath, and the Law allowed only the priests to consume the leftover loaves of the previous week (Lev. 24:5-9).
When David approached the High Priest on a Sabbath day, no priest had consumed the leftover bread from the Table of Showbread. The High Priest made an exception to feed David with the showbread and allowed him to take the rest for his companions (1 Samuel 21:1-7). According to Jesus, David and the High Priest took exemption from the Law as a humanitarian act. Similarly, what the disciples did was also blameless and justifiable.
(5) And have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the Temple break the Sabbath rest, yet they are not guilty?
Jesus referred to another exception to the general rule. The priests must work double on the Sabbath in the Temple to make sure the sacrifices take place according to the prescriptions of the Law. “On the Sabbath day, you must offer two one-year-old lambs without any defect, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with oil, as well as the accompanying wine offering.” (Numbers 28:9). This involved priests’ work including cleaning of sacrificial animals, lighting of fire, slaughter of animals, lifting them on to the altar. In addition, the priests also had to change the showbread on every Sabbath (Leviticus 24:8). Such works would become the violation of Sabbath for ordinary people. However, the Law itself gave precedence for the sacrifice to God over the Sabbath rules. Jesus, who gave importance to human suffering, also expressed precedence for acts of mercy over Sabbath regulations.
(6) I tell you, there is something greater than the Temple here.
During the Old Testament time, the Temple was the dwelling place of God among the people (Exodus 25:8). God’s presence was in the Holy of Holies, where they kept the ark of the Covenant. The Ark contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna in a gold jar, and Aaron’s staff that had budded. Prophet Jeremiah had removed the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense to a cave and sealed its entrance before the Babylonians under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first Temple (2 Maccabees 2:5). When Zerubbabel constructed the Temple after the Babylonian exile, and later when King Herod the Great reconstructed it, the sacred contents of the ark were unavailable. Shekinah glory was also absent in the Holy of Holies. The word shekinah meant “that which dwells” and designated the divine presence (Exodus 25:8) manifested through the light on the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant kept in the Holy of Holies.
Jesus had a divine and human nature. He was the perfect dwelling of God among the people. He was the Word that became flesh and communicated with people just as God spoke to the forefathers, prophets, and prominent leaders of Israel. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens torn open, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and the Father declared from the heavens that Jesus is His Son (Mark 1:10-11). These were the manifestations of God’s glory on earth. At the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared beside Jesus, the shekinah cloud came back, and the Father confirmed in public that Jesus is His son (Mark 9:2-8). Jesus performed many miracles that were also the manifestations of God’s glory. Jesus gave his own body and blood as the new manna for the nourishment and survival of our spiritual life (John 6:31-35). While the most important contents were missing in the last Temple, Jesus was their replacement and hence was far superior to the Temple of Jerusalem.
(7) If you really knew the meaning of the words: It is mercy I want, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent.
Jesus justified the disciples who were innocent, though they would seem to have violated the Sabbath. When they were hungry, Jesus allowed them to pluck and eat the grains from the field, so they will not collapse while they continue the day in the synagogue. For Jesus, it was an acceptable and recommended act of mercy.
Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6 stating that the Pharisees did not understand the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Israelites were more concerned with pleasing God through animal or other ritualistic sacrifices than taking care of the needs of God’s people. Since God had been showing mercy, they also must do the same to their fellow humans.
The term “mercy” has distinct shades of meaning in the Bible. God is the best example of mercy because even when the first parents sinned, He did not abandon them but showed them mercy like a father to his children. “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and with these he clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21). He promised them a redeemer to rescue them from their fallen state (Genesis 3:15). Psalm 33:5 says: “The earth is full of the mercy of the LORD.” God repeated his mercy even when Israel, the chosen people committed sin violating their covenant with God. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13). Every verse in Psalm 136 repeats saying: “for his mercy endures forever.” Thus, God showed recurring mercy first, withholding justice for humanity’s conversion.
Jesus taught that God also expects us to forgive those who offended us as an act of mercy. “If you forgive others their wrongs, your Father in heaven will also forgive yours. If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive you either.” (Matthew 6:14-15). Jesus taught the precedence of mercy over sacrifice by saying: “So, if you are about to offer your gift at the altar and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Mercy also means showing kindness towards one another. “But love your enemies and do good to them and lend without expecting to get anything back. Then will your reward be great and you will be children of the Most High. For he is kind towards the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36). Jesus bases the last judgement on the acts of mercy (Matthew 25: 31-46). The Pharisees showed no consideration for the hungry disciples of Jesus. Their sole concern was their interpretation of the Law on the Sabbath observance.
(8) For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
By using the Son of Man for himself, Jesus was asserting to the Pharisees that he was the Messiah or Son of God. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made.” (Psalm 33:6). “He is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, rulers, authorities, powers; all things were made through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16). Since God established the Sabbath, all persons of the Trinity have authority over the Sabbath.
The Man with a Withered Hand
(9) Jesus then left that place and went into their synagogue. (10) There was a man there with a paralyzed hand. Hoping to find grounds for an accusation against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?”
Jesus, along with his disciples, was moving through the field to the synagogue in Capernaum. The questionable issue was that the man with the withered hand was not in an emergency. He could meet Jesus on a day other than Sabbath for healing. Why was Jesus healing such a person on the Sabbath?
The Pharisees knew that whenever Jesus saw persons with infirmities, he would volunteer to heal them. Even before the man with the withered hand and Jesus interacted, the Pharisees raised the question on the Sabbath observance intending to accuse him of its violation. Instead of an answer, Jesus asked a counter question to the Pharisees.
(11) But he said to them, “What if one of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath? Will you not take hold of your sheep and lift it out? (12) But a man is worth much more than a sheep! It is therefore permitted to do good on the Sabbath.”
Here the expected answer for Jesus’ question to the Pharisees was a positive one. Sabbath observance had its exceptions. If saving an animal from an accident was acceptable on a Sabbath, the people shall not postpone helping a man from his infirmities just because the day was a Sabbath. Human beings created in the image and likeness of God are far more valuable than any animal on which the man has dominion (Genesis 1:26). People do acts of mercy not for their own benefit but for the wellbeing of others. So, the works of charity would make the Sabbath holy. It would please God who prefers acts of mercy over sacrifice. We shall not miss the opportunity to do good. Avoiding or delaying a good that one can do is a sin of omission. Jesus confirmed saying, “It is therefore permitted to do good on the Sabbath.”
(13) Then Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and it was completely restored, as sound as the other one.
Jesus, the Word incarnate, did not need any physical labor to heal the man with the withered hand. Since Jesus, the Word of God, was powerful and God used him at the time of creation, he used his words to say, “stretch out your hand.” While the man obeyed Jesus’ command, he received the healing. The Pharisees and those in the synagogue could not blame Jesus for any physical labor.
The man with the withered hand obeyed Jesus. He did not say that he would meet Jesus the next day to avoid trouble for him and for Jesus. His faith in Jesus and obedience saved him from a long-term disability. Postponing an opportunity to get a favor from Jesus would have caused him an enormous loss.