Manufacturing a cause for faith – Friday, 15th Week in ordinary time – Matthew 12:1-8
The twelfth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew now presents Jesus in direct confrontation with the Pharisees. (Verses 2, 14,24 and 38). It is tragic when religious leaders lose the plot, especially if the plan was drawn by them. To understand this text, we first need to understand the background of the critics of Jesus. The Pharisees rose to prominence in the second temple period, which is somewhere between 586 BC-AD 70; from the time the Jews returned from exile in Babylon to the fall of the second temple of Jerusalem.
The English word Pharisees originated from the Hebrew “Perisha” (the singular of “Perishaya” and translates as “one who separates himself,” or keeps away from persons or things impure, in order to attain the degree of holiness and righteousness. By doing this, they hoped to represent the religious views, practises, and hopes of the Jewish people. Their separation from others was also included their opposition to the priestly Sadducees.
The Pharisees were scrupulous observers of the Law, as interpreted by the scribes and in accordance with tradition. They formed a league or brotherhood of their own (“ḥaburah”), admitting only those who pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity, to the avoidance of any association with the ‘Am ha-Areẓ (the ignorant and careless boor), to the scrupulous payment of tithes and other contributions due to the priestly class and the poor and to a conscientious regard for vows and for other people’s property. Yet, they who had a plan for everything, finally lost the plot. They who set themselves apart to be pure became the ones who ‘conspired to destroy Jesus’ (12:14)
Today’s Gospel is a controversy set in a field of grain. A simple and natural response to hunger on the Sabbath becomes an excuse for the Pharisees to pick up an argument with Jesus. Jesus was not anti-Torah or anti-Sabbath, He just challenged the interpretations of the Pharisees with regard to the Sabbath. For Jesus their interpretations had evolved into nothing more than mountains hanging by a hair, for there was very little scripture to be lived and more rules to follow.
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). Humanity, it seems, loves to make complex what the divine chose to simplify. The Rabbis, it appears, seemed unhappy with such a basic law and found it necessary to specify thirty-nine actions as those which are forbidden on the Sabbath. Amongst these forbidden actions were reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal; the very actions that the disciples ‘broke’ on the Sabbath. But every law has an exception and this was no different. Humanitarian grounds exempted one from considering these actions as broken on the Sabbath. Saving a life took precedence over keeping the law.
For the record, it was the disciples who plucked the grain and ate, not Jesus. Yet the nit-picking (should have been grain picking) Pharisees don’t correct the disciples but find fault with Jesus; “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 if the Sabbath rule was broken, then in was done so on humanitarian grounds.
To the modern mind, perhaps the act of plucking grain without the owner’s permission seems like the bigger fault. Hence, this one will need to be explained. The laws of the Old Testament were laid down with great sensitivity for the good of human kind. Unfortunately, human kind interpreted God’s laws very narrowly if not for their own convenience. There was no crime committee on this occasion because the law permitted a hungry traveler to pick grain so long as they did it with their hands and not a sickle. Simply put it, if you are hungry, eat and don’t starve.
Jesus uses the example from the Torah to justify the actions of his disciples. He quotes the example of David and his hungry men who ate the bread meant for the priests. The eating of the bread as we know it was not the real issue but it is what they ate that should have caused the uproar and strangely it seemed to affect no one. Furthermore, Jesus cites the example of the priests who apparently also broke the law when they performed a double duty on the Sabbath, for on this day the offerings doubled and instead of observing the sabbath rest they were working double shifts. 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.