Legalism (Matthew 12:1-3)

Photo by Tom Robertson on Unsplash

Having just promised rest to whosoever will in saying, “Come to me, all you   who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus now leads His hungry band of disciples through a grainfield so they can work on the Sabbath rest day. “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” ”  

The Gospel writer knows that the apparent contradiction between word and action is best seen in the light of why He was teaching about rest to start with, so the scene is set with the words, “At that time”, which ties the grain-field incident to Christ’s teaching at verse 25, where Jesus was praising His Father for revealing truth – not to the wise and learned, but to the childlike in faith. 

Recall that Jesus had just been teaching that the wearisome focus on ceremonial law the people were used to was not going to reveal the Father to them. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were wrong. That approach couldn’t lead people to salvation (witness the woes He pronounced on the cities He did much of His work in) and it couldn’t give satiate the soul. Only Jesus Himself could reveal the Father and only the ‘Jesus way’ could provide true rest. So while Jesus’s trip through the grainfields provided food for His disciples (who were legitimately hungry), the real purpose was an object lesson to those who were watching and listening. 

Jesus was tying the truth of His teaching to His observable behavior: A stringent and harsh observance of God’s ceremonial law is not truth, and such a view clouds the understanding of who God even is. 

The Pharisees don’t get the point. They only perceive a violation of God’s law. The injustice of that violation fills them with so much anger that they cannot simply watch from the sidelines. So they confront Jesus and point out His disciples’ ignorance, no doubt expecting a humble recognition of error. 

But Jesus’ response to them is not that. It is however, exactly what you’d expect from someone who is growing weary of correcting ignorance dressed up as wisdom: “He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?” 

Jesus’ opening comment, “Haven’t you read…” tells the greater story. The Pharisees’ whole job was to read the Scripture and explain what they found – yet in all their reading of the minutiae of ceremonial law they had failed in discerning the greater principle of God’s character, which was the whole point of the law to start with. 

The point could hardly be clearer.

If the servants of the temple could break the Sabbath for good reason, then so could the Almighty, who was worshiped in the temple and who stood before them as the Son of Man.

Stuart K. Weber

APPLICATION: Intentionality

Everything we read in Scripture is there to reveal something of God to us. Not just to educate us about Him, but to inspire, motivate and encourage us to enjoin Him in His mission of reconciliation and restoration.