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“Lord of Mercy”

Matthew 12:1-14
Bob DeGray
November 10, 2013

Key Sentence

When Jesus is present, mercy trumps rules.


I. The merciful Lord of the Rules (Matthew 12:1-8)
II. The one who does the good the Rules intend (Matthew 12:9-14)


Okay I don’t do humor but these web sites that list the dumbest laws on the books are funny. In Missouri, for example, it’s illegal to drive with an uncaged bear. In Idaho, it’s illegal to give your sweetheart a box of candy weighing more than 50 lbs. In Connecticut it’s illegal to walk across a street on your hands. In Ohio it’s illegal to get a fish drunk. In North Carolina it is illegal to sing off key. In New Jersey, it’s illegal to wear a bulletproof vest while committing a murder. Texas has no such law, but in 1973, Rep. “Jim” Kaster, a democrat from El Paso filed a bill which would have made it a crime to commit a crime without providing at least 24 hours' notice to the intended victim.

I mention these recent examples because many people think the Pharisees had a lock on ridiculous legalism. The law says to tithe, so the Pharisees say you have to tithe the mint growing in your garden. The law says to fast once a year for the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees pride themselves on fasting twice a week. The law says that priests should consecrate themselves for service by a ritual washing. The Pharisees extend ritual washing to everyone many times a day. The law says ‘do not commit adultery.’ Some Pharisees wanted to build a fence around this law by never seeing a woman: so they would turn their heads or close their eyes as they walked. The Talmud calls them the bruised and bleeding Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were intentionally hypocritical, but they all wanted rules to spell out the implications of the law that God had given.

So it’s no surprise that they came into conflict with Jesus. They wanted to interpret the rules, but he was the Lord of the rules, the only one who could criticize the rules of men, because he himself was without sin. More than that he was the one who understood how to live out the principles behind the rules. It’s as the Lord of the rules and the one who does the good the rules intend that we see Jesus in this passage. And He teaches us what he tells the Pharisees, that when he is there, mercy trumps rules. We need to wrestle with our own attachment to rules so that we can know how to live out of a heart of mercy toward our brothers and sisters. Let’s begin with Matthew 12 verses 1 to 8:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

5Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

"At that time" doesn’t mean the same day as the events of chapter 11 but "at about that time." Here it introduces an example of burdensome Pharisaic regulation along with the theme of rising opposition to Jesus that Matthew emphasizes in this middle section of his gospel.

So it’s the Sabbath, and Jesus is walking along with his disciples, probably teaching. The Pharisees had a rule about how far you could walk on the Sabbath, about 1100 meters from the place you spent the night. And there is no accusation that Jesus was breaking this rule. What they bring up is that the disciples are picking grain at the edge of the fields. Matthew does say that the disciples were hungry, but it’s unlikely that this hunger amounted to dire necessity, especially since Mark, in his parallel account, doesn’t mention hunger. Furthermore, the disciples were not stealing, though it might appear so to our way of thinking. In that culture the walking paths went right across fields or closely skirted them, and the grain was sown to the field's edge. The right to pluck this grain casually was in the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy 23:25.

But when the Pharisees saw it they said “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” The Pharisees had elaborated the law against working on the Sabbath, and ‘reaping’ was seen to include even this casual behavior. The Jewish rules for Sabbath were so detailed that even the Talmud admits "the rules about the Sabbath ... are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the Scripture is scanty and the rules many.” There were 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath, including sowing, plowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing, spinning, weaving, even tying a knot. Trapping, slaughtering, skinning, writing, erasing, building, breaking down, kindling a fire, and carrying. Each of these elaborations was fully elaborated and discussed in the Talmud, and through these elaborate discussions exceptions were hammered out, such as the case of temple service or where life was at stake. But neither exception applied here.

In verse 3 Jesus answers with a question about Scripture, which was typical of him and typical also of the debates of the time. He says “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?”

In 1 Samuel 21 David, fleeing Saul, entered that tabernacle, the tent of meeting, which at that time was at Nob, just south of Jerusalem. Both David and his companions ate what should only have been eaten by the priests. It is even possible that this event took place on a Sabbath, since 1 Samuel 21:5-6 sounds as if the consecrated bread had just been changed.

So, on the one hand, David ate; on the other, it was unlawful for him to do so. Jesus' point is not simply that there are exceptions to the rules, but that the Scriptures themselves do not condemn David for his action; therefore the rigidity of the Pharisees' interpretation of the law exceeds Scripture itself. But notice that in 1st Samuel the rules, even of the written law, were set aside for David "and his companions." So Jesus is saying that there is precedent for setting aside the Pharisee’s rules, which had no clear base in Scripture, for Jesus and those with him. But this bold analogy holds good only if Jesus is at least as special as David, which is where Jesus is going with this.

In verse 5 he cites a second Scriptural example: “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” The priests "broke" the Sabbath every week, since the right worship of God in the temple required them to work, changing the consecrated bread, offering the burnt offering, etc. In reality, of course, the priests were guiltless; the law of the temple gave the priests the right to formally break the Sabbath law.

But how does this apply to Jesus and his disciples? Verse 6: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” If temple service justifies breaking the Sabbath laws, will not service to something – or someone – greater than the temple justify that and more? But this is valid only if the "one greater than the temple" is truly present. The question Jesus is intentionally raising is “who or what is greater than the temple?” The answer is the one the temple honors.

Jesus is referring to himself, and it’s rather shocking. The Pharisees would not grasp the enormity of that claim. Even scholars have struggled. Some have said he’s talking about worship of God, which is greater than the temple in which it takes place. Others have argued that what is greater than the temple is the love command, finding support for this in the plea for mercy in verse 7. But in Matthew Jesus hasn’t been asked the question about the greatest commands yet. And Jesus isn’t saying that something greater than the temple has existed all along in the law. He’s saying something greater than the temple is here. In fact he is pointing to himself. Jesus is greater than the temple because he is not just a man, but Messiah-King, Son of David, Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus' argument, then, is that the Sabbath restrictions were superseded by the priests because their priestly work took precedence: the temple, as it were, was greater than the Sabbath. But now, Jesus claims, "something" greater than the temple is here. And that, too, takes precedence over the Sabbath. So the Pharisees are not only mishandling the law by elaborating beyond its intent, but more significantly, they have failed to perceive who Jesus is.

Verse 7: And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. Again, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their failure to understand the Scriptures. He quotes Hosea 6:6 as he had once before, in Matthew 9:13. Just as the people of Hosea’s day relied superficially, hypocritically on the temple ritual for their righteousness, so the Pharisees are relying on external obedience to the elaborated law rather than heart engagement. The accusers stand accused; the disciples are declared "guiltless." As they follow Jesus the Disciples are engaged at a heart level with the coming kingdom. As the Pharisees oppose Jesus they reveal that their hearts are closed to the work of God and to the one God has sent.

Jesus closes this section with a statement so plain that they could hardly miss it: “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Son of Man, of course, is Jesus’ title for himself, a title his hearers did not fully grasp. But every time he uses it he is making a claim to be the Messiah, and so here he places himself in a position to handle the Sabbath law any way he sees to be right, to supersede it in the service of God’s love and mercy in the same way the temple requirements, in the service of worship, superseded the normal Sabbath restrictions.

He is Lord of the Sabbath, greater than the temple. Hebrews 12 vividly expresses the same truth when it calls him greater than Mount Sinai: “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. . . 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to his sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

One greater than the Sabbath, one greater than the temple, one greater than Sinai is here, one greater than Sinai is here. So we need to ask ourselves whether we have put something above the one who is greater? The Pharisees put their rules above the clear presence of the Messiah and the Kingdom.

Do we do that? Do we put rules ahead of mercy? Some of us like rules; we like to organize our lives and even the lives of others by having do’s and don’ts, by having standards and criteria and milestones and expectations. It might be in our family – we have a rule that everyone has to be home for dinner, or that no one can watch movies above a certain rating or that everybody goes to bed when mom does. A lot of our rules are good – they aren’t even crazy. But if Jesus trumps rules then we need to be careful that we don’t make the rule more important than the relationship, or than the work of Jesus in someone’s life.

It’s the same at church. We are tempted to make a lot of rules. You’ve got to dress this way, you’ve got to sit this way, you’ve got to attend this often, you’ve got to participate in this ministry, you’ve got to school your children this way, you’ve got to vote this way, you’ve got to hang out with this crowd, and on and on. And some of these rules are good, though often there are unspoken rules that if they were spoken we would be smart enough to revoke. But if Jesus trumps rules then we need to be willing to let the rule go, make it less important than relationships and the work of Jesus in people’s lives.

I keep thinking of the story I told a few weeks ago about Rosaria Butterfield. One of the things she says in her testimony is about rules: “Ken and Floy omitted two important steps from the rulebook about how Christians should deal with a heathen like me on that first night when I had dinner with them. They did not share the Gospel with me, and they did not invite me to church. Because of these omissions to the Christian rulebook as I have come to know it, that night when Ken extended his hand of friendship to me, I knew it was safe for me to close my hand in his.” Rules are good, but mercy is better and Jesus is Lord.

But the Pharisees don’t get it, and this Sabbath rule issue becomes a focus of their controversy with Jesus. Matthew 12:9-14 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

With the phrase “He went on from there,” Matthew moves the action from the field to the synagogue. He’s not necessary implying that this episode directly followed the previous. We do the same thing when we say things like “I went to high school in Smithville and I want on from there to college in Akron.”

The Pharisees may have set Jesus up with this opportunity to break their Sabbath rules. The definitely try to trap him with a question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” The thinking among the rabbis at the time was that healing was permitted on the Sabbath only when life was in danger, which it wasn’t here. So if he answers for healing he’s explicitly breaking their rules and they can denounce him. If he answers against healing he discredits his ministry.

In verse 11 Jesus answers, as usual, with a question, and with one of his common types of reasoning. It’s called ‘qal va homer’ in Hebrew: from the lesser to the greater: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” This particular argument occurs only in Matthew; but it is similar to Luke 13:15 and 14:5. In all three instances Jesus assumed that the Pharisees would lift an animal out of a pit on the Sabbath. This common decency was considered a legitimate exception to the law. But if it’s lawful to do good to a sheep, how much more should it be lawful to do good to a man. Verse 12: “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap: he exposes their hypocrisy: of course it is lawful to do the compassionate and merciful thing on the Sabbath if one has the ability and opportunity to do so.

The healing, verse 13, is a bit anti-climactic. “Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.” Like the healing of the leper which we studied in chapter 9, the anti-climax of the healing serves to affirm the audacity of Jesus’ claims. There it was that he could forgive sin. Here it is that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, and the one who does good lawfully on the Sabbath. That’s why Matthew says that it was restored healthy like the other. Jesus is no charlatan healer; he is able and willing to do us good, and he is the Lord not only of the Sabbath but of everything that impacts our lives, and of every evil that attacks us.

Verse 14 records the response of the Pharisees to all this: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Why did that do that? Not many people are so committed to their rules that they will kill rather than let someone do good. Even the Pharisees, we suspect, would not have gotten bent out of shape if all Jesus had contended was that it was lawful to do good.

But that’s not all that is going on here. His central and, for them, infuriating claim was to be Lord of the Sabbath, someone greater than the temple. He’s claiming to be the Messiah and more than Messiah, the Son of God. He claims an authority that can only belong to God. So I want to close by asking us to think about two things. One is Jesus and his claims. This passage, along with many others we have studied, contains some shocking claims.

I mean think about it this way: let’s say you have a friend; you’ve known him since high school. He was a good tight end on the football team. He did okay in college and ended up with a job in the same town as you. So you see him from time to time at basketball games and the grocery store. You get together once in a while. And on one of these occasions he casually mentions that he has authority to overrule the poor decisions of local judges, to free prisoners who are unjustly imprisoned. ‘Well, who died and made you king?’ you ask him. He answers seriously ‘nobody, I just am. I’m the ruler of the rulers, and in authority over the authorities.’ What are you thinking at this point? Mental health issue! This guy’s not playing with a full deck.

Jesus’s claims, to be greater than the temple, to be Lord of the rules, are shocking. The Pharisees feel perfectly justified in claiming he’s demonic, crazy, a blasphemer. They can’t begin to grasp that he for real, and true. Do we grasp that? Do we really believe in a God who is greater than all things, whose Son is greater than all things, who has told us the truth in Scripture, who has the power to keep all his promises and who has rescued us by love? Or someplace deep inside do we think this whole thing is preposterous, crazy, a pleasant delusion that only gives us a little hope in an inexplicable world? The Gospels, these accounts, were written down for all time because we need to know that Jesus is who he claims to be. Not a liar, not a delusional neurotic, but the Lord; Lord of the Sabbath, greater than the temple, Son of God.

But the other thing we need to walk away from this with is a strong preference for doing good and showing mercy over enforcing rules. This goes against the grain and against common sense. Rules, we say, are for everybody’s good. Rules, we say, build a fence against temptation and sin. And on some level we’re right. In a fallen world we must ask for promised wisdom before we lightly set aside rules or consequences of behavior. But we must prefer doing good and showing mercy to enforcing rules. In our families, in our church and even in our communities, we must prefer doing good and showing mercy.

Three weeks ago while Gail was gone, I went with the team to Galveston Urban Ministries. Immediately I got drawn into rescuing their computers from bad viruses and doing maintenance on them. I sat in their training room with a guy named Lewis, who does their job search training and a lot of other things.

So I’m sitting there and a lady comes in and tells Lewis that she has a one year old, not toilet trained, and she’s totally out of diapers. Lewis does what every responsible person does in such ministries: he tries to check her story. It sounds good. He quizzes her on what she really wants, and all she seems to really want is diapers. He asks if she has any way to get them and she says no.

He asks her what she’s tried and she talks about several agencies that are closed, or don’t have any or sent her to GUM. Then he makes about three phone calls to places he knows that ought to be able to help, and they are all like ‘Friday,’ or ‘we don’t have any,’ or ‘try someplace else.’ So he’s following the rules. The rules say that even as a helping ministry, you can’t just randomly help people; the ministry has to focus on its ministry calling. Which is not diapers.

So Lewis does what Jesus would do. He says OK, I’ve got a little money, you wait here, I’ll run out and get you the diapers. What size do you need?” He goes away, the lady waits, he comes back with the diapers; she’s really grateful, end of story. Sometimes you’ve got to let the rules go, and just do what is right and good and merciful. Kudos to Lewis. Kudos to Jesus.