Mercy or Legalism?
It was a sunny Sabbath day and Jesus and his disciples were walking through fields of grain on their way to the synagogue for worship. They were getting hungry so they picked some heads of grain and ate them as they walked along. Meanwhile the religious leaders, who were called “Pharisees” had been spying on Jesus and his disciples, waiting to catch them doing something wrong. When they saw one of the disciples picking grain they rushed across the field toward Jesus shouting angrily: “Look here! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:2)
The Jewish religious leaders or Pharisees back then had put their own strict legalistic interpretation on the Scriptures. God had given laws and commandments to the Jewish people telling them how to share and live lovingly and justly with one another. But often the Pharisees would turn these laws into heavy burdens for the people.
One of God’s commands given to the Jewish people (and to us) was to rest on the Sabbath day. To stop working and take a break. Worship God and lay their burdens down. Let their employees stop working on the Sabbath along with their animals. God’s Word states that the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. This command is one of the Ten Commandments and begins this way: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:8)
The Pharisees were upset because they believed that Jesus’ disciples were working when they plucked grain to eat! That small effort of plucking grain caused the disciples to break God’s Sabbath so these religious leaders argued! They shook their fists at Jesus accusing Him and His disciples of serious sin and promising God’s judgment would follow.
Jesus answered them with several stories. He reminded them that their ancestor, King David, entered the house of God with his men. These men had not eaten for several days. They all ate the showbread that had been dedicated to God. It was not lawful for David and his men to eat this bread, as it was meant only for the priests. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) David and his men had been very hungry and couldn’t find food. Even though they broke the law by eating this bread, they were excused by God. Jesus explains that Sabbath regulations may sometimes yield to human needs. Human need takes precedence over a strict interpretation of the Law, Jesus is telling the legalistic Pharisees.
Then Jesus reminds the Pharisees that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath by working, and yet God counts them blameless. (Matthew 12:5) The priests must give offerings to God and hold worship services on the Sabbath, so they must work on the Sabbath if the people are to come to temple worship. Jesus seemed to be saying that there are exceptions to a rule.
And then Jesus finishes with these words: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:6-8)
Jesus seems to be saying that God ordained rest on the Sabbath to bless people, not to add another burden on them. Jesus tells the religious leaders that if they had known what the Law and the Scriptures meant they would not have condemned his disciples. The Pharisees had spent their lives studying God’s laws, but they still didn’t know the “meaning” of those laws. God had given the Jewish people many laws but Jesus once said that all of God’s laws could be summed up in just two laws - laws of love. “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 27:37-40) Did these religious leaders not understand the meaning of God’s laws because they lacked love?
Jesus was also telling the Pharisees that He was “Lord of the Sabbath”, although they did not want to hear that. Jesus, the Son of God, has been given authority over everything and that includes the Sabbath. Jesus also hinted at who He was by telling the Pharisees: “ In this place is One greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6) If working in the temple would justify the priests working on the Sabbath, wouldn’t the service to Christ much more justify the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath while serving Christ. Christ in a wheat field was greater than the temple. Jesus was not saying here that it was not important to rest and worship God on the Sabbath or to keep all of God’s laws. But I believe that He was saying that there are exceptions to the rules.
You may be surprised that Jesus and His disciples were plucking grain from another person’s field, but this was a common practice in those days and never thought of as stealing. God had given the Jewish people laws encouraging them to share with one another and never let another person go hungry. Again mercy was all important in God’s plan. One of God’s laws to the Jewish people instructed them regarding this practice. “If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.” (Deuteronomy 24:25)
The Pharisees and nearly all the religious leaders of that day did not recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah, and rejected Him. They refused to see His miracles or recognize that He was healing hundreds of people. They wanted to kill Him for causing a lame man to walk on the Sabbath day. And they were frightened and outraged when He brought Lazarus back from the dead. So frightened and outraged that they began plotting to kill Him.
Jesus Christ was messing up their little world. Their Messiah had come to them bringing light and life and they weren’t ready for Him. They were enjoying the power and authority they had over the Jewish people with their many strict laws and restrictions. They would have to change and do things differently if they were to believe in Jesus. And they definitely didn’t want to change.
Jesus also comes into your world bringing light and life. And He also calls for you to follow Him. To let Him be your Savior. To go into the world sharing His love and mercy with others. To leave your hate behind and forgive. Are you willing to let Him change you? What will your answer be?