The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 3 is Matthew 12:1-14. It relates two “controversy” stories, in which Jesus comes into conflict with “the Pharisees” over what is or isn’t permissible on the Sabbath. Here are my notes on the text:

Background and Context

First, it’s the Gospel of Matthew – which, recall, might make us think several things: 1) a careful literary structure, with long passages of teaching interspersed with action stories; 2) an emphasis on material that comes from Hebrew scripture, and on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic literature, that has led scholars to the opinion that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience; 3) such familiarity with the Hebrew scripture sources that maybe the author was himself a scribe.

There are also questions, or perhaps more precisely controversy, about whether and to what extent the Gospel of Matthew inscribes an anti-Semitic or at least anti-Judaic bias in scripture; the story of the crowd before Pilate calling down a perpetual curse on themselves for their responsibility in Jesus’ execution the most extreme bit of evidence in this regard (Matthew 27:25). Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ disputes with “the Pharisees” might need to be read with this in mind, too.

In the teaching/stories structure, Matthew 12 comes between a teaching about mission (chapter 10) and a collection of teaching parables (chapter 13: the sower, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, etc.) So, between a passage of instructions for how to call people into the Kingdom of God, and one with more detailed descriptions (albeit parabolic) of the Kingdom. Chapter 11 has John the Baptist performing a reality check (“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3, followed by further commentary on how to read the signs of Jesus’ activity, and call to “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest …” etc. (Matthew 11:28-30). It’s possible that the episodes that begin chapter 12 are an indication of what an easy yoke and a light burden mean, practically – but there are some complications involved in that reading.

The controversy stories position Jesus vs. “the Pharisees.” Christians of my age, and maybe younger Christians as well, are so used to this trope and to the ways it has been described and discussed from the pulpit for the past five or six decades – and for that matter, for longer than that – that we very easily tumble into the tired, old, wrong language of “legalism” or “Pharisaism.” By all contemporary accounts, this is a serious mistake, but exactly how to correct for it is less clear. What is pretty clear is that we can’t just take what we know about rabbinic Judaism from the Talmud and read it back onto the first quarter of the first century CE. So, we can’t just use Tractate Shabbat to tell us what “the Pharisees” thought about the Sabbath in Jesus’ day, or to make sense of what Jesus is saying in v11.

Closer Reading

Even though these are “episodes” – in the grand scheme of teaching passages and action episodes – they contain a lot of teaching. Jesus talks a lot, answering Pharisees who object to his disciples “plucking grain” (v1) and who pose a test that hinges on what’s permissible on the Sabbath (v10). Jesus’ teaching takes up most of the text (vv3-8, 11-12).

The episode in the grainfields feels curiously disembodied. These Pharisees seem to spring out of nowhere. Where have they been? How do they happen to be out in these indeterminate grainfields, to see the disciples plucking grain in the first place? How long did this grain plucking go on, for them to see it? Why were the disciples so hungry? Hadn’t they eaten breakfast? [Because, I know we are not supposed to read rabbinic halakhah back onto the first century, but if it had been today, they should have eaten breakfast.] All in all, it seems to me a little difficult to imagine the real-life context. The setting feels a little like a staged or posed photograph: a little bit artificial. It seems to be there to allow Jesus to give his lecture on bread and the priests in the temple and so on.

Which raises the question: what is Jesus saying in that lecture? He might be comparing himself and his disciples to David and David’s men – and so, maybe is making a messianic statement. Maybe he is saying “if David could eat consecrated bread, how much more can we eat a few heads of grain” – but maybe he is saying “if David could do it, how much more can I [being greater than David] and my guys do it.” Either reading is possible. Similar ambiguity with the priests in the temple: if the priests do work in a big way on the Sabbath, how much more can Jesus’ disciples do this minor thing – but maybe he is saying, if the priests can set out bread on the altar (see Leviticus 24:5-9), how much more can I [being greater than they] do something like that work on the Sabbath?” Whether the “something greater than the temple” is the disciples’ hunger – so, human need – or the person of Jesus Christ, or both, is another open question.

It also isn’t immediately obvious how the Hosea passage Jesus quotes (Hosea 6:6, “steadfast mercy and not sacrifice”) fits the situation. If not working on the Sabbath is understood as sacrifice, then “mercy rather than sacrifice” would lie in the direction of permitting work on Shabbat. But why is not working a sacrifice? Isn’t not working a blessing, the blessing of rest and of freedom? So perhaps the point is – sometimes keeping someone from “working” imposes suffering, calls for a sacrifice of well-being, from them, and when you’re making a choice to impose suffering rather than to facilitate rest and well-being on the Sabbath, you’ve forgotten the spirit of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath?

Jesus says the accusers have “condemned the guiltless.” If so, they bear some guilt of their own in this situation, because they are rendering a distorted judgment.

In “their” synagogue – whose synagogue? The Pharisees’? Jesus’? – a different issue arises: a man with a “withered” (literally, “dry”) hand. A lot of commentary goes into the question of what are (now) or would have been (in the early first century) the accepted parameters for healing or taking curative action on the Sabbath. In Matthew’s version of this story, the Pharisees pose the question of whether it is permissible to “cure” on the Sabbath. Today, the line is drawn around curing or healing or seeking medical attention at the point where a person’s life is in jeopardy, which would seem to place the man’s condition in the “wait till tomorrow” category. How settled that issue was in the first century might not be settled. In any case, Jesus recasts the question as one about doing good [not “curing” or “healing”] on the Sabbath, and uses the comparison of a sheep – presumably not at risk of death, but not having a good time in the bottom of a pit. If you have permission to relieve the suffering of a helpless sheep, well, a person is of far greater value than that.

There is some ambiguity here, too, and not only because the question of whether it was permissible to rescue the sheep was evidently far from settled in the first century. Because the sheep may have monetary value, and the issue on people’s mind in the case of the sheep might have been saving one’s property value; the person presumably doesn’t have that kind of value, actually has less value than the sheep from that perspective. And this perversion of values may be Jesus’ point: by giving permission to rescue the sheep, and denying it to the rescuer of the man, his accusers may be revealing their true motives to be commercial, rather than compassionate. That reading would be consistent with some other cases in which Jesus disputes with Pharisees, where his charge is that the Pharisees care more about money than about people.

What work does Jesus actually do in this story? (And who’s doing the work? That raises the more theological question of what kind of “rest” we think God enjoys on the Sabbath in the first place. Clearly not rest from sustaining the creation – that wouldn’t be restful for the creation at all. And now we’re back to the issue of Sabbath well-being …)

Ironically, Jesus’ opponents are willing to go to the effort of plotting against him (v14) – should that qualify as work? Whether or not it is work, that activity is distinctly counter to the spirit of the Sabbath rest, and counter to the spirit of “doing good” on the holy day.

The word translated as “lawful,” and which is stressed by repetition in this passage, is a Greek word that literally means “permissible” or “possible,” so the sense is something like “what can we do” – a question we would ask if we were looking for latitude vis-à-vis rules. Here, too, the focus of the passage seems to be on what people are trying to find latitude for, what we are trying to make room in the holy Sabbath time for. If we are trying to make room for kindness, for wholeness, for health and well-being, our decision-making about what’s allowed will display that kind of flexibility, it will bend in that direction.

So, underneath the controversy, there seems to be a question about what it means to be “holy.” What is the “separation” involved in holiness a separation from?

And who is in a position to give the “permission” entailed in “permissibility”?

Some related links:
Anthony J. Saldarini on “Comparing the Traditions: New Testament and Rabbinic Literature”
Francois P. Viljoen on “Sabbath Controversy in Matthew”
Shaye D. Cohen on “The Significance of Yavneh”

Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew