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Once again, I want to remind us why we are studying the Gospel of Matthew. We are slowly working our way through Matthew to learn more about Jesus, his message and behavior. The goal of the study is to align our lives everyday with his way of life.
I think the best way to approach today’s Bible passage is to understand it in the original setting, then apply it to life today.
Issues of Authority in Jesus’ Day
Jesus announced the coming of a new kingdom (Matthew 4.17). His new kingdom had a strikingly new way of living that Jesus fully explained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
The new kingdom had a new king or Messiah. Did you know that Christ is not Jesus’ last name? It is a title. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” Both Christ and Messiah refer to the “Anointed One,” who was God’s long awaited King.
As the King of a new kingdom, it makes sense that Jesus would clash with the authorities of the old order. To them Jesus was a peasant from a small town, Nazareth. He lacked formal education and operated outside of their system. They longed for God’s Messiah, but Jesus didn’t look the part to them, so they rejected him.
Matthew recorded two events of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities on the same day in the town of Capernaum. We will look at one of those today.
He wrote this about the first one: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.’
“But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?
“‘Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath'” (Matthew 12.1-8).
Rules Versus People
The Sabbath was a gift from God to people, plus it was a powerful symbol of Israel’s identity. As a gift, people got a day of rest from work. As a symbol, it was one of two commandments that set Israel apart from other nations.
Isaiah gives us an idea of how important Sabbath keeping was to the people of God. He wrote,
Thus says the Lord,
“Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
2 “How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56.1-2)
In Jesus’ day Sabbath keeping had become so strict that there were 39 rules that explained what people could or could not do. Thus, the gift of the Sabbath had become a burden of regulations that made life difficult for people.
When the disciples ate some raw heads of wheat, they crossed the line of what was lawful to do on the Sabbath. The religious authorities, who were looking for any way to criticize Jesus, seized the opportunity and complained that the disciples were breaking the law.
Jesus quoted from Hosea, highlighting the “gift” aspect of the Sabbath. He pointed out that mercy was more valuable than sacrifice. The mercy of the “gift” aspect of the Sabbath was more valuable than the sacrifice of staying hungry in order to keep the Sabbath regulations.
Jesus made two claims that were certain to further inflame the anger of the religious leaders. He said, “Something greater than the temple is here” (verse 6) and “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (verse 8).
The temple in Jerusalem was and is the most sacred structure in their history. The religious, social, and political life of the nation revolved around the temple. Even though Israel was ruled by one super-power after another, the temple reminded them that they were God’s people.
When Jesus said that he was greater than the temple, it was sure to infuriate the men whose entire lives were devoted to the observances that took place in the temple. There was no way that they could accept that kind of boasting without strong objections.
Almost in the same breath, Jesus further exploded the minds of the authorities. He said that he was the Lord of the Sabbath. Imagine a man burning an American flag in the presence of a dozen battle scarred Marines and you will have an idea of how offensive Jesus’ words would have been to the religious crowd. No wonder, they were ready to kill him (Matthew 12.14).
Why did Jesus act and speak like he did? Surely, he knew what kind of reaction he would receive. We know that Jesus wasn’t a radical, who just like to stir things up. So, why did he talk like he did?
Jesus said that he was greater than the temple and the Lord of the Sabbath, because it was true. A new King and a new kingdom had come and he was there to let people know. If he hadn’t told them, he would have been shirking his responsibilities.
I have a theory about why Jesus talked like he did. He did so to get their attention and to eventually win them to faith. I believe that Jesus used whatever means he knew would be effective to reach people.
Some people came to faith through healing and deliverance. Others, like his disciples, were won by the simple words, “Follow me.” It may have been that Jesus knew that he had to “get under the skin” of the religious authorities for them to begin taking his ministry and message seriously. Possibly, some of them came to faith in Jesus during the time of the Acts of the Apostles.
A Message for Us
The most important thing for us to learn from this episode from the life of Jesus and his followers is to respond properly to Jesus’ authority. People like Peter, James and John recognized Jesus’ authority. They knew he was in control and they surrendered the control of their lives to him.
May I suggest that we begin our day with a prayer of dedication and surrender to the authority of Jesus. This is the way that Saint Teresa of Avila began her day.
“Lord, grant that I may always allow myself to be guided by you, always follow your plans, and perfectly accomplish your holy will. Grant that in all things, great and small, today and all the days of my life, I may do whatever you require of me. Help me respond to the slightest prompting of your grace, so that I may be your trustworthy instrument for your honor. May your will be done in time and in eternity by me, in me, and through me. Amen.”
Jesus disrupted the lives of people whom he met. The men and women who followed him, made significant changes in their lives so they could better follow him. The religious authorities were inflexible and resistant to the change Jesus brought.
Jesus is calling us to follow him. Like I often quote Henry Blackaby, “We can’t go where Jesus is and stay where we are.” Whatever way God is shaking things up in our lives, let’s not fight him. Let’s surrender and follow. After all, he is the ultimate authority of life and has every right to tell us to follow his direction.
Let’s end today’s article by praying St. Teresa’s prayer.