Dedication of the Church Second Sunday

The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Matthew 12:1-13

INTRODUCTION

The Pharisees and Scribes had disagreement with Jesus because his teachings and actions were different from theirs. So they could not accept Jesus as the Messiah or as a prophet from God. Instead, they opposed him and tried to find proof to accuse him. In today’s gospel we see Pharisees questioning Jesus for his violation of Sabbath observance based on two situations. One was that the disciples were plucking and grinding grains in their hands on a Sabbath to appease their hunger. The other was that Jesus healed a man with withered hand on the same day. Both were violations of Sabbath observance according to Pharisees. Jesus taught that Sabbath is holy and holiness lies not in denying the basic needs of people or avoiding acts of mercy. Let us give importance to acts of mercy along with our religious observances.

BIBLE TEXT

Picking Grain on the Sabbath.
(1) At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. (2) When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.” (3) He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, (4) how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat? (5) Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent? (6) I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. (7) If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. (8) For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”

The Man with a Withered Hand.
(9) Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue. (10) And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. (11) He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (12) How much more valuable a person is than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” (13) Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other.

INTERPRETATION

The Evangelist Matthew presents the accusations of Pharisees against him and his disciples on the violation of Sabbath in the context of Jesus’ teaching on his yoke that is easy and light compared to the yoke imposed by the Scribes and Pharisees. In Mathew 11:28-30 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Though God gave laws through Moses, the interpretations and additions of the laws by the subsequent religious leaders made them burdensome for the people to follow. Religious practices, including the observance of Sabbath, became wearisome like yoke fitted on the neck of oxen for ploughing. Jesus wanted to free the people from such unnecessary and meaningless burdens and encourage them to follow his word that would give them rest and make their burdens light.

Picking Grain on the Sabbath.

(1) At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.

The context of the event was that Jesus and his disciples were walking to a synagogue on a Sabbath day through the footpath of a field ripe with grain. The fact that the disciples were hungry shows the poverty of Jesus and his companions during the public ministry of Jesus. Even when someone is hungry, picking up grains or fruits from another person’s property can be considered as stealing and punishable in the modern understanding. The Israelites were more generous with the hungry because Moses had allowed eating from the neighbor’s field with some restrictions as follows: “When you go through your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, until you are satisfied, but do not put them in your basket. When you go through your neighbor’s grain field, you may pluck some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” (Deuteronomy 23:25-26). This was the divine design to take care of the basic necessities of the poor and landless. During the sermon on the mountain Jesus taught: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26). So, the disciples were not stealing from another’s property according to the law of the time. However, the issue was that it was done on a Sabbath.

(2) When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”

The Pharisee in Hebrew means “separate” or “detach” because Pharisees had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. They were against the Hellenistic influence in the Jewish religion. Besides the laws given through Moses, the Pharisees developed their own interpretations and applications of the Law.  They gave importance to the traditional rituals that were not in the Mosaic laws but were handed over by the elders of previous generations claiming that they were also of divine origin. The Pharisees originated during the post-exilic times when there was a thirst for maintaining the purity of the Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), many of them objected him because he did not strictly follow their man-made rituals and traditions

The Pharisees, along with Sadducees, were religious rulers of Jews during the public ministry of Jesus. Both Pharisees and Sadducees were members of the Sanhedrin, the seventy member supreme court that sentenced Jesus. The Pharisees were also leaders of the synagogues and some of them were priests. Though Sadducees were the majority in the Sanhedrin and held the position of chief priests and high priest, the Pharisees were more influential because they had more popular support and they controlled the synagogues. This was because, unlike Sadducees, the Pharisees did not favor Hellenism and the Roman rule. Sadducees ceased to exist after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.; whereas the Pharisees continued even afterwards and became the founding stone for contemporary Rabbinic Judaism.

From the context, it is clear that some Pharisees were closely following and watching Jesus and his disciples to find fault with them. In Matthew 15:1-2, we read, “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.’” So, these two groups were emissaries from the Sanhedrin to find fault with Jesus to kill him.

The Pharisees accused Jesus because, according to them, the disciples of Jesus were doing what was unlawful by picking up grain on the Sabbath. According to Exodus 20:8-11, the Sabbath day was to be kept holy and no one was supposed to work on that day. If anyone violated that law, he could be put to death. (Numbers 15:32-36). The Pharisees had worked out detailed specifications of what all would involve in the violation of the Sabbath observance. These interpretations were burdensome and had gone far beyond the intention of God and teachings of Moses.

Luke gives more details of what the disciples did: “His disciples began to pick the heads of grain, rub them in their hands, and eat them. (Luke 6:1). The Pharisees interpreted plucking the corn as harvesting, rubbing the grain in the hands as threshing, separating the husks from the grain as winnowing, and the whole process as preparing meal that were prohibited on the Sabbath. Food to be eaten on the Sabbath had to be prepared on the day before.

(3) He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry,

Jesus answered referring to what David and the priests who served in the Tabernacle did when David and his companions were hungry. (1 Samuel 21:1-7). Feeding the hungry has been considered as great virtue in Bible. The criteria Jesus gave for the final judgement starts as follows: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink …” (Matthew 25:35). “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat, if thirsty, give something to drink.” (Proverbs 25:21). According to Jesus, when someone is desperately in need of food, feeding the hungry should have precedence over the traditional observance of the law.

(4) how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?

The event happened after David was anointed as King of Israel by Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 16:13) and had not yet taken charge as king. King Saul was after David to assassinate him because Saul was envious of David for his popularity by killing the Philistine giant Goliath. Moreover, if David remained alive, Saul’s son Jonathan could not claim kingship. (1Samuel 20:31). For fear of King Saul, David and his companions were running and hiding for safety. David could not find any food for himself and his friends. The only solution he found was to approach Ahimelech the priest in the Tabernacle at Nob. The Temple of Jerusalem was not built at that time and the tabernacle was kept in Nob. When David asked for food, the priest had nothing left except the shewbread 

God had instructed Moses to build a table of acacia wood covered with gold plate on which the priests shall set 12 loaves of Bread of the Presence regularly. (Exodus 25:23–30). This table was placed in the Holy Place of the tabernacle outside the Holy of Holies. The priests had to replace the bread on every Sabbath day and the left over loaves of the previous week were to be eaten only by the priests. (Lev. 24:5-9).

When David approached the priest on a Sabbath day, no one had consumed the leftover bread from the Table of Shewbread. The priest made an exception to feed David with the shewbread and allowed to take the rest to his companions. (1 Samuel 21:1-7). According to Jesus, that violation of law by David and the priest was considered as a humanitarian act and as an exception to the general law. Similarly, what the disciples did was also blameless and justifiable.

(5) Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?

Jesus referred to another exception to the general rule. The priests have to work double on a Sabbath in the temple to make sure the sacrifices take place according to the prescriptions of the Law. “On the sabbath day: two unblemished yearling lambs, with a grain offering of two tenths of an ephah of bran flour mixed with oil, and its libation. This is the sabbath burnt offering each sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Numbers 28:9). This involved work by priests like cleaning of sacrificial animals, lighting of fires, slaughter of animals, lifting of them on to the altar, and other related works. In addition, the priests also had to change the showbread on the every sabbath (Leviticus 24:8)  Such works would become violation of Sabbath for ordinary people. However, the law itself gave precedence for the sacrifice to God over the Sabbath rules. Jesus who gave importance to human suffering, also expressed precedence for acts of mercy over Sabbath regulations.

(6) I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.

During the Old Testament time, the Temple was the dwelling place of God among the people.  (Exodus 25:8). God’s presence was in the Holy of Holies where the ark of the Covenant was kept. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna in a gold jar and Aaron's staff that had budded were kept inside the ark. Prophet Jeremiah had removed the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense to a cave and sealed its entrance before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar. (2 Maccabees 2:5). When the Temple was rebuilt under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah after the Babylonian exile, and later when it was reconstructed by King Herod the Great, the sacred contents of the ark were missing. So also, the shekinah glory was also absent in the Holy of Holies. The word shekinah meant “that which dwells” and designated the divine presence (Exodus 25:8) manifested through the light on the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant kept in the Holy of Holies.

Jesus had a divine as well as human nature. He was the perfect dwelling of God among the people. He was the Word that became flesh and communicated with people just as God spoke to the forefathers, prophets and famous leaders of Israel. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens were torn open, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and voice of the Father from the heavens confirming Jesus as His Son was heard. (Mark 1:10-11). These were manifestation of God’s glory on earth. At the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared beside Jesus, the shekinah cloud came back, and the voice of the Father confirming the Sonship of Jesus was heard. (Mark 9:2-8). Jesus performed many miracles that were also manifestation of God’s glory. Jesus he gave his own body and blood as the new manna for the nourishment and survival of our spiritual life. (John 6:31-35). While the most important contents were missing in the last Temple, Jesus was their replacement and hence was far superior to the Temple of Jerusalem.

(7) If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men.

Jesus accused Pharisees for condemning the disciples who were innocent though they would seem to have violated the Sabbath observance. When they were hungry, Jesus allowed them to pluck and eat the grains from the filed so that they won’t collapse while they continue the day in the synagogue. For Jesus, it was an acceptable and recommended act of mercy.

Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6 stating that the Pharisees did not comprehend the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Israelites were more concerned with pleasing God through animal or other ritualistic sacrifices than taking care of the needs of God’s people. Since God had been showing mercy, they were also supposed to do the same to fellow human beings.

The term “mercy” has different shades of meaning in the Bible. God is the best example of mercy because even when the first parents sinned, He did not abandon them but showed them mercy like a father to his children.  “The LORD God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21). He promised them a redeemer to rescue them from their fallen state. (Genesis 3:15). Psalm 33:5 says: “The earth is full of the mercy of the LORD.” God repeated his mercy even when Israel, the chosen people committed sin violating their covenant with God. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13). Every verse in Psalm 136 repeats saying: “for his mercy endures forever.” Thus recurring mercy came initially from God withholding the implementation of his justice over humanity. Jesus taught that God also expects us to forgive those who offended us as an act of mercy. “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15). Jesus taught the precedence of mercy over sacrifice by saying: “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Mercy also means showing kindness towards one another. “Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36). The final judgement is also based on the acts of mercy. (Matthew 25: 31-46). The Pharisees could not feel any consideration for the hungry disciples of Jesus. Their sole concern was their interpretation of the law on Sabbath observance.

(8) For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”

The Hebrew phrase "the Son of Man" means a human being. (Ezekiel 2:1). However, when the same phrase was used in the vision of Prophet Daniel (7:13), it acquired divine qualities because the son of man came with the clouds of heaven. Ordinary humans cannot travel on the clouds.  Jesus chose this phrase for himself out of his humility, while others used “Son of God” that gives emphasis to the divine origin of Jesus. So, it designates the human and divine nature of Jesus.

By using the Son of Man for himself, Jesus was asserting to the Pharisees that he was the Messiah or Son of God. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. “By the LORD’s word the heavens were made.” (Psalm 33:6). “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16). Since Sabbath was established by God, all persons of the Trinity have authority over Sabbath.

The Man with a Withered Hand.

(9) Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue. (10) And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.

Jesus along with his disciples were moving through the field to the synagogue in Capernaum. The questionable issue was that the man with withered hand was not in a dangerous situation. He could meet Jesus on a day other than sabbath for healing. Why was Jesus healing such people on the sabbath day?

The Pharisees knew that whenever Jesus saw a person with infirmities, he would volunteer to help them. Even before the man with withered hand asked for healing and before Jesus took notice of him, the Pharisees asked the question with the intention of accusing Jesus for violation of Sabbath. The answer expected was a negative one. However, Jesus made a counter question to the Pharisees.

(11) He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (12) How much more valuable a person is than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”

Here the expected answer to Jesus’ question to Pharisees was a positive one. Sabbath observance had its exceptions. If saving an animal from accident was acceptable on a Sabbath, helping a man from his infirmities was not to be delayed because the day was Sabbath. Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God are far more valuable than any animal on which man has dominion. (Genesis 1:26). The rescue was done not for one’s own benefit but for the well being of others. The works of charity would make the Sabbath holy. It would not be against the will of God but would be pleasing to God who prefer to do acts of mercy over sacrifice. The opportunity to do good shall not be missed. Avoiding a good that one can do is a sin of omission. Jesus confirmed saying, “So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”

(13) Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other.

Jesus, the Word incarnate had no physical labor to do to heal the man with withered hand. Since Jesus, the Word of God was powerful and was used at the time of creation, he used his words to say, “stretch out your hand.” While the man obeyed the command of Jesus he was instantly healed. The Pharisees and those in the Synagogue could not blame Jesus for any physical labor.

The man with withered hand obeyed Jesus. He did not say that he would meet Jesus the next day to avoid trouble for him and for Jesus. His faith in Jesus and obedience save him from a long term disability. Postponing an opportunity to get favor from Jesus would have caused him a big loss.

MESSAGE

1. During the Old Testament times, people were permitted to eat from the vineyards and greenfield of others even without their permission. The landowners were generous to follow that law to take care of their starving neighbors. How far are we generous in providing the basic necessities of others when we have more than enough?

2. We practice many rituals as part of our religion. But all of them become meaningful and acceptable to God only when we meet the basic provisions of the people as Jesus stipulates in his words of final judgement like I was hungry or thirsty etc. (Matthew 25:31-46).

3. The Israelites were privileged by the presence of God in the Holy of Holies of their Tabernacle and later in their Temple. Same God is present in our churches and is seated on the altar. We meet Jesus, the Son of God in the church during Holy Mass, listen to his words, and offer sacrifice with him to God the Father and receive the precious Body and Blood of Jesus. Thus, Jesus dwells within us, along with the Holy Spirit that we have received through Baptism and Confirmation. Let us be remindful of the divine presence in our church and in ourselves.

4. Jesus quoted to the Pharisees from Hosea 6:6. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” How merciful we are to others who need our help and who offend us?

5. Jesus could ignore or excuse himself from healing the man with withered hand on the Sabbath. That would have saved one accusation against him from the Pharisees. Yet, Jesus did not want to miss an opportunity to help. Are we helping others whenever we can? If not, we are committing sin of omission.

6. Our Sunday observance should include participation in the Holy Mass and other voluntary works of mercy. Visiting the sick, helping the poor, teaching the young for their spiritual growth and similar activities would make the observance of our Lord’s day holier.

7. With a few words, Jesus could heal the man with withered hands. Our kind words can heal many people who are emotionally wounded, depressd or who have enmity towards us. Why don’t we try that?

8. The faith and obedience of the man with withered hand made him well. We shall never miss an opportunity to meet Jesus in the church and to get blessings from him.