Red Letter Year: 4/10

Matthew 12:1-14

At about that time Jesus was walking through some grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

Then Jesus went over to their synagogue, 10 where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)

11 And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. 12 And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! 14 Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus.


Matthew gives us two stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath and discussing that with Pharisees (the religious leaders who were most offended by such action). It is interesting that in both instances the Pharisees cite the Law as forbidding what Jesus is doing, but only in the first instance does Jesus join them in biblical discussion. In the second story, Jesus appeals to compassion and common decency (or perhaps common sense). In both cases, the Pharisees have a strong(er) biblical argument. The Law was considered more primary than the history of prophets that Jesus mentions and we can see what a big deal this was to them because they immediately begin scheming about how to destroy Jesus. 

They do this because Jesus clearly sets himself above the Law as one with authority over it. The Sabbath is for our benefit, it is good for us to rest from work, recover, and heal. Munching on grain and healing a man’s hand are quite in keeping with the principle that Jesus has extracted from the Sabbath regulation, but he is clearly using a different method of interpretation from that of the Pharisees. He begins with the principles of love, goodness, compassion, trust, and hope and reads the Bible so that it accentuates or at least does not hinder the practice of these principles. This moves Jesus quite far from a literal reading of the Bible. For literalists, the Pharisees clearly have the superior reading, which helps explain why so many Christians go back to slavishly practicing things Jesus set us free from. We read the Bible like Pharisees more often than we read the Bible like Jesus. Which is a shame, since Jesus’ way leads to people being fed and healed. We should try reading the Bible compassionately more often. Good and powerful things would probably happen.


New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.