Matthew 12:1-14  – Two Sabbath Controversies


Matthew 12:1-14


Two controversies over the Sabbath illustrate the expanse of Jesus’ authority and drive a wedge between him and the Pharisees.


The Sabbath occupies an important place in the religious life of the Jewish people because according to Genesis 1 it is built into the fabric of creation. Rest on the Sabbath was seen as necessary for all of the world to function, and so traditions grew up to safeguard people from having to work on that day. Because of the importance of these traditions, the Sabbath became a point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. 

The first Sabbath controversy involves the behavior of Jesus’ disciples. They make their way through a field of grain, plucking the ears as they go. It is somewhat unclear how exactly they have violated the Sabbath. Some have pointed to a prohibition against harvesting on the Sabbath, others to a prohibition against travel. Regardless of the precise violation, their behavior offends the Pharisees, who appeal to their teacher, Jesus. Rather than scold his disciples as the Pharisees hope, Jesus takes the opportunity to engage in a novel bit of biblical interpretation. He defends them by pointing to David’s eating of priestly bread with the implication that he is like David and finds himself in a time of need, thus excusing his followers’ behavior. If that explanation did not convince them, he makes a second argument, noting that the priests in the Temple have to do work on the sabbath. He tops it all off by making the boldest claim of all: He is Lord of the Sabbath and thus he can decide whether something is lawful on the Sabbath or not. 

This grand expansion of Jesus’ authority provokes the Pharisees and changes their views of his actions. The presence of a man with a withered hand in their synagogue gives the Pharisees the hope that they can use a healing as an opportunity to accuse Jesus of being a breaker of Jewish law. As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares the situation of humans to that of animals. Even sheep get rescued on the sabbath; it would be ludicrous if people could not be rescued as well. As a result of Jesus’ rejection of their own religious reasoning, the Pharisees go out and begin to plot in order to destroy Jesus.