Matthew 12:1-8 – Situation Ethics?

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath.  And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck the heads of grain and to eat.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!'” (Matthew 12:1-2).

Some misuse this context.  They start with the mistaken assumption that the Pharisees were technically  correct.  However, Jesus went on to defend His disciples.  Therefore, they conclude that in some situations one is justified in setting aside God’s law.

Let us point out that Jesus earlier experienced intense hunger, yet He refused to set aside God’s word in order to satisfy His hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-4).  Who can believe that He approved of His disciples setting aside God’s law in order to satisfy their hunger?

The disciples had not violated the law by plucking grain.  This was not a violation of the Sabbath (cf. Exodus 12:16).  One writer summed up the situation saying, “If they had pulled out a sickle and begun harvesting the corn they would have been violating the Sabbath law. However, they were picking strictly for the purpose of eating immediately – in complete harmony with Mosaic law… Exodus 12:16” (Dave Miller, Piloting the Strait, p. 411).  Moreover, this was not theft, as some have thought (cf. Deuteronomy 23:24-25; Leviticus 19:9-10).

It was a violation of the Pharisees’ rules and perverted interpretation of the law.  It is true that most work was to cease on the Sabbath (Exodus. 20:8-11 cf. Exodus 34:21; 35:2-3; Numbers 15:32-36; Nehemiah 13:15-22; Jeremiah 17:21-22).  However, the Pharisees developed  a long list of things that could not be done on the Sabbath.  Here are some examples: one was not to look in a mirror on the Sabbath, because this might tempt one to pluck out a gray hair, and this would be reaping; one could not wear jewelry on the Sabbath, because this would be carrying a burden; one could not blow out lights on the Sabbath; one could eat an egg which was laid on the Sabbath, if the hen was killed for breaking the Sabbath (

Point One

Have you not read what David did when he was hungry… how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat…” (Matthew 12:3-4).

The Jews highly esteemed David.  They did not condemn him for what He did in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 (cf. Exodus 29:33; Leviticus 24:5-9).  Where was the outrage?  Why the inconsistency?  Was this really about the law?  Or, was this about their hatred of Jesus?

Point Two

Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matthew 12:5).

Not all work stopped on the Sabbath.  Burnt offerings were made (Numbers 28:9-10).  The showbread was prepared (1 Chronicles 9:32 cf. Leviticus 24:5-9).  Circumcisions were performed (John 7:22-23).  These facts establish that God never intended for everything to cease on the Sabbath.

Point Three

…in this place is one greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6).

They had no idea who stood before them.  “If He could instruct priests to carry on temple service on the Sabbath, He surely knew whether His disciples were authorized to eat on the Sabbath (in harmony with the law)” (Miller, p. 411).

Point Four

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

Twice Jesus referred the Pharisees to Hosea 6:6 (cf. Matthew 9:13; 12:7).  God emphasized mercy over sacrifice.  Ritualistic sacrifice, without love for one’s fellow-man, did not impress God (cf. Proverbs 15:8; 21:3; 21:27; Isaiah 59:1-2; Malachi 2:11-14).  The Pharisees had a heart problem.  They typically had little compassion and love for others.

Consider this: While they allowed one to care for his animal on the Sabbath (cf. Luke 13:15; 14:5-6), they objected to the disciples plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath.  They cared more for their animals than they did for their fellow-man.

Let us make application to the church assembly.  Think of the man who missed because he was taking someone to the emergency room.  Think of the mother who stayed home to take care of an ill child.  Mercy has precedence over sacrifice. This is not setting aside God’s law. This is God’s law.

Point Five

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

The point is not recorded in Matthew; however, we will include it in our study, one of the purposes of the Sabbath was to provide a day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:14).  It was not designed to be difficult on man.  “Since it was intended for his good, therefore, the law respecting it must not be interpreted so as to oppose his real welfare” (C.E.. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, p. 68).

Point Six

For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

Jesus has provided the proper understanding of the intent of the Sabbath law.  He was Lord of the Sabbath (cf. Hebrews 3:1-3).

May we each remember – that while there may be many different interpretations of a Bible passage or subject – there is only one which should ultimately concern us, His.  May we each be about the business of discerning His will.

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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