Two Sabbath Incidents

Scripture Reading: Matthew 12:1-14

The question of proper Sabbath observance arose several times during our Lord’s public ministry. The Jewish law made careful provision for keeping of the seventh day of the week, but the Rabbis had added many rules of their own, making the Sabbath really a burdensome day. Jesus did not recognize these added requirements, and hence often displeased the rulers by what they considered violations of the law.

The criticism at this time was caused by our Lord and His disciples going through the grain fields on the Sabbath. They were probably on their way to the morning synagogue service. The disciples were hungry, and as they walked along by the standing grain, which was then ripe, they plucked off some of the heads and, rubbing them in their hands and then blowing away the chaff, they ate the grains.

The Pharisees were always watching Jesus that they might find something of which to accuse Him. There are two ways of watching good people. One way is to watch them to see how they live that we may learn from their example; the other way is in order to criticize and find fault with them. It was the latter motive which prevailed with the Pharisees. They went along with Jesus, not because they loved to be with Him, but as spies upon His conduct. The conduct of Christians is always watched by unfriendly eyes, eyes keen to observe every fault. We need to live most carefully, so as to give no occasion for just censure. Yet the example of Jesus shows us that we are not to be slaves of traditional requirements which have not authorization in the word of God.

Good people can find better business than to play the spy upon the lives and conduct of others. The unfriendly espionage of these Pharisees on Jesus and His disciples appears in our eyes very far from beautiful. We are behaving no better, however, than the Pharisees did if we keep our eyes on others for he purpose of discovering flaws. Perhaps they do not live quite as they should live; but are we their judges? Do we have to answer for them? Then, perhaps, our sin of censoriousness and uncharitableness is worse than the sins we find in them. There are some people so intent on trying to make other people good that they altogether forget to make themselves good.

When the Pharisees said to Jesus that His disciples were doing that which was not lawful on the Sabbath, He reminded them of what David did when he and his companions were hungry. “Have ye not read?” It was in their Scriptures. David, fleeing from Saul, went to Ahimelech very hungry, he and his companions, and asked for something to eat. There was no bread about the place save the showbread. It was not lawful for any but the priests to eat this bread. But the men’s need satisfied the custodian of the tabernacle that he might deviate from the letter of the law in this emergency (see 1 Sam. 21:1-6).

The act of the disciples in plucking and rubbing out the heads of grain to satisfy their immediate hunger was a work of necessity and therefore not a sin. Though the letter of the law may have been violated, yet it was not violated in spirit. What works of necessity are cannot be established by minute rules and regulations. The settling of the question must be left in each particular case to the enlightened consciences of faithful followers of Christ.

Jesus made a starling claim when He said to His critics, “One greater than the temple is here” (see v.6). It is usually supposed that He refers to Himself. But a marginal reading suggests “a great thing,” meaning the law of love. That is, love is always the highest law. This different rendering seems to be favored by the words which follow. “If ye had known what this meaneth — I will have mercy, and not sacrifice — ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” Love would have made you think of men’s need as higher than the observance of the letter of a Sabbath rule. No Divine law means to have men go hungry.

Then Jesus uttered another startling word, “For the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath day.” He thus claimed the right to interpret the laws of the Sabbath. In Mark 2:27 we have also this strong assertion, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was part of the Divine constitution which God had ordained for His children. Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfill. He took the Sabbath, therefore, and stripped from it the burdensome regulations which men had attached to it, and put into it its true spiritual meaning. He set the Church free from the cumbersomeness of a rabbinical Sabbath, and made it a day of joy and gladness, a type and foretaste of heaven.

Almost immediately afterwards another question of Sabbath observance arose. It was in the synagogue. A man was present who had a withered hand. Again the Pharisees were watching Jesus to see what He would do. They asked Him if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath day. They were not humble seekers for the truth, but were looking for a ground of accusation against Him. It was a violation of the rules of the Pharisees to attend the sick or even console them on the Sabbath. Jesus knew the intention of the Pharisees in their question and bade the man arise.

Then He asked them, “what man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” In this He appealed to simple common sense. Whatever their traditions said about the Sabbath day, the practice of the people would be on the merciful line. The Talmud says that if the animal is in no danger in the ditch it should be allowed to remain unrelieved over the Sabbath. But the form of our Lord’s question shows that this was not the practice of the people. “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” Then He added, “How much then is a man better (or more valuable) than a sheep!” If it was right to help a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath, it certainly was right to relieve a human sufferer from his sickness on that day.

So we have the lesson, “Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” It is right for physicians to attend to their patients on the Lord’s day. It is right for those whose duty it naturally is to nurse the sick to care for them on the Sabbath. It is right to visit the sick when they need our sympathy and when we can carry to them blessing or cheer. It is right to visit those who are in affliction when we can carry comfort to them; to visit the poor when we can minister to their needs or relive their distresses. It is especially right to go out among the unsaved, when we can do anything to bring them to Christ. It is right to gather neglected children from the streets and from Christless homes, and bring them under the influence of Divine grace.

We must be careful not to pervert our Lord’s teaching here. Not all kinds of work can be brought into the class indicated in the words, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day.” It was the Jewish Sabbath concerning which Jesus was speaking here, and our Christian Lord’s day is in every way more beautiful, more joyous. Yet we need to keep most holy guard over it, for there are many influences at work to rob us of it. There was a time when very much of the old rabbinical spirit was exercised in some parts of the world toward the Christian Sunday. Now, however, the tendency is in the other direction, and we are in danger of losing the sacredness of this day. The Lord’s Day is not well kept when its hours are devoted to mere social purposes. The best preparation that can be made for its proper observance is to prepare for it as far as possible on Saturday. This was the old-time way. Everything was done on Saturday that could be done to lighten the burden of the work on Sunday. Someone tells us the story of a man who was trying to get his Negro servant to do some unnecessary work on Sunday. He reminded the servant that Jesus had said it was lawful to pull a donkey or an ox out of a pit on the Sabbath. “Yes, massa,” was the reply, “But not if it fell in on Saturday.”

Jesus never was deterred from His work of mercy by the censorious criticism of His enemies. He bade the man to stretch forth his hand. The arm was withered, dried up, dead. How could the man stretch it forth? But when Jesus gave the command it was implied that he would also give power to obey. The man must make the effort to do what he was bidden to do. That was the way he showed his faith. Then with the effort came new life unto the dead arm.

Whenever Christ gives us a command He is ready to give us strength to obey it. We may say the thing required is impossible, but it is the privilege of the Christian to do impossible things. Anybody can do possible things; but when Christ is working in us and through us we need not ask whether the things He commands are possible or not. “I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). People often say that they cannot begin a Christian life because they have not the strength to do what Christ requires of them. True, but if they will begin to obey, they will be enabled to obey, helped by the Master Himself.