Cornfield controversies- Friday, 15th week in ordinary time- Matthew 12: 1-8
The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees reaches a flashpoint in chapter twelve; so much so that by verse fourteen they have made up their mind to “destroy Him”. Jesus had no axe to grind against the Pharisees, He just came so that all would do the will of His Father in heaven (verse 50), and that included the Pharisees.
Somehow the Pharisees saw His presence as a threat to their beliefs and way of life. Jesus saw their practice of the faith as a yoke enslaving people. Jesus was not anti-Torah or anti-Sabbath; He just challenged their interpretations of the Sabbath when it evolved into nothing more than “mountains hanging by a hair, for there is very little scripture and more rules” (JBC).
Ironically the Old Testament, especially the First five books of the Law, have just one thing to say about the Sabbath; keep it holy (Exodus 20: 8- 11). The Rabbis seemed unhappy with such a basic law and found it necessary to specify thirty nine actions as forbidden on the Sabbath. Amongst them were reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. But every law has an exception and this was no different. Humanitarian grounds exempted one from these actions on the Sabbath. Saving a life took precedence over keeping the law.
The narrative in today’s Gospel takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus and His disciples walked down the thin narrow strips between the cornfields, which were considered a right of way and it is there that hunger pangs kick in; it is here that the controversy takes root.
For the record, it was the disciples who plucked the corn and ate, not Jesus! Yet the nit-picking (should have been corn picking) Pharisees don’t correct the disciples but find fault with Jesus saying, “your disciples are breaking the law”. In reality, the disciples broke no law. Remember the exception made on humanitarian grounds? That comes into play now. The disciples were hungry, and that was a humanitarian ground to break the law.
To the modern mind, perhaps the act of plucking corn without the owner’s permission seems like the bigger crime. So we need to explain this one. The laws of the Old Testament were laid down with great sensitivity for the good of human kind. Unfortunately human kind interpreted Gods laws by their own understanding. There was no crime of stealing that could stick to the disciples, because the law permitted the hungry traveller to pick grain to eat so long as they did it with their hands and not a sickle. In brief, if you’re hungry, eat and don’t starve.
Jesus uses the law to justify the actions of His disciples. He quotes David and his hungry men who ate the bread meant for the priests, permitted on humanitarian grounds. He cites the example of the priests who performed double duty on the Sabbath for on this day the offerings doubled. Most of all He reflects the mind of God through the words of the prophet Hosea; a God who desires mercy not sacrifice.
If the Pharisees wanted to pick a real fight, they ought to have done better than just start a cornfield controversy.
Fr Warner D’Souza