Commentary on Matthew 12:1-8
Today’s story follows immediately on yesterday’s words of Jesus inviting those carrying heavy burdens to come to him for comfort and relief. Those burdens were understood to be the yoke of the Law which could weight so heavily on the ordinary person. Today we see what kind of burdens it entailed.
Jesus and his disciples are walking through a cornfield. The disciples were feeling a little hungry so they began plucking ears of corn to eat. Nothing wrong with that. Gleaning, especially where the poor were concerned, was not regarded as stealing. “When you go through your neighbour’s grainfield, you may pick some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbour’s grain” (Deuteronomy 23:26).
Yet the Pharisees criticised the disciples’ behaviour before Jesus. They were not upset by the plucking of the corn but because it was done a sabbath day. Most manual work was forbidden on the sabbath, including for instance, reaping. So we read in Exodus: “For six days you may work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; on that day you must rest even during the seasons of ploughing and harvesting” (Exodus 34:21). The question that would come immediately to the legalistic mind would be what exactly constituted harvesting. In the minds of the Pharisees, who would put the strictest interpretation in order to be on the safe side, what the disciples were doing contravened the Sabbath requirements.
Jesus would have none of this nonsense. He gave two examples which the Pharisees would find difficult to criticise:
First, David’s soldiers, because they were hungry, went into the house of God and ate the loaves of proposition, that is, bread which was laid out as an offering to God. According to the law, only the priests were allowed to eat this bread.
Second, he pointed to the priests on temple duty who not only worked on the sabbath but did more work than usual on that day (like priests today!). Yet no one found fault with them.
Jesus has two further and more powerful arguments:
- He calls his accusers’ attention to a saying from the prophet Hosea (Hos 6:6): “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.” What this means is that the measure of our behaviour in God’s eyes is not our observance of law but the degree of love and compassion we have for our brothers and sisters. Laws are for people; people are not for laws. That is why a truly loving act always transcends any law. If the Pharisees had fully understood the meaning of Hosea’s words, they would not have “condemned these innocent men”.
- Finally, Jesus simply says, “The Son of Man is indeed the Lord of the sabbath.” Jesus as Lord is not bound by even the God-given laws of Israel. If, in the eyes of Jesus, his disciples are innocent, then they are innocent.
Every time we read texts like this we have to look at how we as Christians behave both individually and corporately. Legalism and small-mindedness can very easily infect our Catholic life. We can start measuring people – including ourselves but especially others – by the observance or non-observance of things which really have little to do with the substance of our Christian faith. Of course, we can also go to the other extreme of having no rules at all.
There is a very demanding law to which we are all called to subscribe and that is the law of love. It allows of no exceptions. But its practice can only benefit both the giver and the receiver.
Commentary on Matthew 12:1-8