1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? 6 Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
9 Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him.
11 Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.
14 Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.
15 But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. 16 Yet He warned them not to make Him known, 17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
18“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
19He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
20A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
21And in His name Gentiles will trust.”
In our passage last Sunday, Jesus concluded it with a well-known phrase: Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. This theme of “rest” is something we could spend a few hours on tracing throughout the Bible. The central event in the history of the people of Israel was what? The Exodus. And what happened in the Exodus? Israel had become slaves in Egypt, they were weary and heavy laden. And God wanted them to be let go from Pharaoh in Egypt. And let go to do what? Two things that are really one-and-the-same: serve Him in worship and enjoy His rest. In our passage today, we see that this very same rest is given to His people by His great King.
Lord of the Sabbath (Verses 1-8)
Matthew presents a scene where Jesus and His men are walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, the day of rest. In the God’s law, that He gave Moses on Mount Sinai, God made provision for the poor to be able to walk through fields and vineyards and glean. You weren’t allowed to harvest someone else’s field, but you could pick a little if you were hungry. So they were doing nothing wrong here. But out of nowhere the Pharisees appear and accuse Jesus. They say His men are violating the Day of Rest.
Why was violating the Sabbath such a big deal to the Pharisees? Well, in the Law, it is a capital offense. So over generations, tradition built up around it so that no one would violate it and risk execution. We might think “whoa, the is just barbaric! Execution for violating the Sabbath! Why would the God of mercy and love do such a thing!?” Think back to Exodus, right before God gave Moses that law. The man who violated it, went out on the Sabbath to gather firewood. Everyone else was obeying God’s command to rest so he had the very best pickings you could imagine. If he had been allowed to get away with this, what would have happened? Everyone would be out working on the Sabbath, nullifying any rest that the day would give. What this man who was executed was doing was not simply gaming the system to easily gather firewood. He was removing the rest that God had given to all of His people. He was re-enslaving them. THAT is why he had to be put to death. THAT is why Israel took the Sabbath so seriously. That is also why this charge the Pharisees levy against Jesus is so serious. It is not a minor rule they accuse Him of breaking.
How does Jesus respond? He first gives us an analogy that doesn’t seem to line up perfectly. The analogy Jesus uses doesn’t say anything about the Sabbath at all. He reminds the Pharisees of the story of David and his men fleeing Saul. David and his men reach the tabernacle, and are starving and need to eat. But there was a problem. The only food available was the food expressly reserved for the priests, the showbread. Worship, like the Sabbath is something that God takes VERY seriously. In Leviticus chapter 10, the sons of Aaron the high priest, Nadab and Abihu make an executive decision, to alter the specific commands God told them regarding worship. They say, nah, we think this is better. And what does God do? Fire from the altar consumes them alive. Violating God’s commands regarding worship could cost you your life. God takes it very seriously. So these priests in David’s day had a very difficult decision. They could let David’s men starve to death or they could recognize the point of God’s law is not for the sake of having a law, but to give rest to people. So they took the bread reserved for the priests and gave it to David’s men.
Jesus is not saying David’s men or the priests sinned. He is saying the point of the law is not simple a rule to follow to something to give life to men. This is also, why righteous deception of the kind we see with Rahab and the spies, and in Genesis with Abraham and Abimelech, and Jacob and Isaac, or of people hiding Jews from the Nazis, is also not a sin despite God having very clear laws about false witness. The point of God’s law is not simply to have a law for the sake of law. The point of God’s law is to give life. To preserve life. To give rest.
Here Jesus’s men are hungry like David’s men. Jesus’s men are not out in the fields to take advantage and get a jump start on the harvest when everyone else is obeying God and resting. They are eating because they are weary. It is not a sin to relieve your weariness on the Sabbath. In fact, the ENTIRE POINT of the Sabbath is to relieve weariness. But the Pharisees hate God, and want to use God’s law to accuse God of injustice.
Jesus makes a second point, one that to the Pharisees must have been both shocking and enraging. Jesus says that the priests do tons of work on the Sabbath yet are without sin. And God not only approves of this but positively commands it. This isn’t an exception to the Sabbath, but a built-in part of it. Worship is rest. Sharing a meal with God is rest. Incidentally, this is precisely why enjoying the Lord’s Table every week is important. We need to feast with our God. A day off on the fourth Thursday of November is nice, but what makes it so restful is the turkey and mashed potatoes and family around the table. And the worship in Israel was no different. The people enjoyed the peace offerings. And this was work. The butcher down the street from the Temple would be stoned to death if he tried to do what the priests freely did every Sabbath.
The Pharisees understand this, but what Jesus said next is what was shocking. “In this place there is one greater than the Temple.” It is almost impossible to overstate the symbolic significance of the Temple to the Jews. If we took the U.S. Flag, National Anthem, every monument in D.C., and put them all in one, we might be able to scratch the surface in understanding how much the Temple meant to being a Jew. “We are God’s people, and this is the place that God came down to dwell with men.” It is as if Jesus profaned our most cherished national symbols. He is claiming to be greater than the Temple! And of course, He is. What the Temple symbolized, He is. But of course, people who hate God could not possibly understand this.
Then Jesus says something that many people have a very hard time understanding. He quotes the Prophet Hosea “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Hosea was not telling Israel “worship is no big deal, just be nice to everybody.” He was telling Israel, your worship is meaningless if you do not understand the point of my law is to show mercy. Neither Hosea, nor Jesus are saying worship do not matter, they are saying that the God’s commands are to provide relief, and worship from those who make life worse for other people misses the point of worshiping to begin with. If they understood that first principle, they wouldn’t have sought to condemn innocent men. Because the Son of Man, Jesus, is King. Even King of the Sabbath.
Pulling Us Out of The Pit (V. 9-13)
Next, Jesus arrives at His destination, the Pharisees synagogue. And they were ready for Him (or so they thought). They had set a trap. That’s how wicked these guys are, they know that Jesus is merciful and kind, and cannot but restore those who are damaged, and hurt, and broke. So they set before Him a man who has what appears to be a birth defect, a hand that had not fully grown. “What are you gonna do, Jesus. It’s the Sabbath, are you gonna do ‘work’ and heal this guy?”
Just nasty wicked people, these Pharisees. Really despicable. And how does Jesus answer them? If your sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, do you just let it stay stuck down there, maybe get eaten by wolves? Or do you show it mercy and pull it out? Is a sheep worth more than a man? If you’ll do that for an animal, why would you refuse to do it for a person?” The attitude these men have to the Sabbath is, “sorry, I’d love to help relieve this burden you have born literally your entire life, but I have this day devoted to relieving burdens and can’t. Hope you understand.” It is monstrous. It is a perversion of God’s entire intention of giving Sabbath rest. And so Jesus heals Him.
The Hope of the Gentiles (V. 14-21)
You might have missed it, but what do the Pharisees do after Jesus heals the man? They go out and plot how to destroy Jesus. Is plotting how to kill someone allowable on the Sabbath? Jesus recognizes this and withdraws. The time for His great final battle has not yet come. And again, wherever Jesus went, huge crowds appeared. And He healed them. He continues to give people rest. But He, again, does the same thing He’s been doing throughout the book. When He heals people, He tells them not to tell anyone. “Keep it to yourself.” And Matthew gives us an even clearer indication of why than before. He quotes Isaiah, and there are a few details in this quote that become relevant. Jesus does “not quarrel or cry out.” He is not looking for conflict or for attention. “No one hears his voice in the streets.” He is intentionally keeping a low profile. “A bruised reed he will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.” He is the opposite of an oppressive figure. Instead of crushing what can easily be destroyed He shows tenderness. The weak, the destitute, the impoverished, those in pain, what does He do for them? He restores them. He gives them rest. And what is the point of Him doing all this? To send forth justice to victory. As we have seen for the last few weeks: a king that shows mercy to the broken-hearted and oppressed is also a king who shows fierce wrath to the proud and arrogant oppressor. That day is quickly coming to Israel. And the result of that day is what? “And in His name the Gentiles will trust.” All the nations of the world will hear of the victory of this great king, and trust in Him. His gospel will go out to all the nations of the world. That is the point of Jesus ministry. And that is the point of Jesus keeping it under wraps in Israel. It is hidden from those who are going to get what is coming. And wide open to those who need it the most. That is the point of what Jesus is doing. So many people think being a Christian is following a million rules. “Oh that must be so awful!” They have no idea that no matter where you go or what you do, you are “living under rules.” You are following someone’s law. And you probably don’t realize just how much of a tremendous burden that law is. Oh, I am “free” to do whatever I want. “Yeah, I am enslaved to my own desires and have to bear the consequences of following whatever I want, but I am free!” But when you come to this King, you find the yoke you were once under was actually unbelievably heavy. A life that is a life of relief. A life where burdens you did not even realize were actually burdens are now gone. A life where you actually get to enjoy real rest. Your king commands you, come and enjoy this rest.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!