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Justice and Sabbath Laws
Summer Quarter: Justice in the New Testament
Unit 1: God Is Just and Merciful
Sunday School lesson for the week of June 3, 2018
By Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 12:1-14
To discover how the Law enhances our lives as God’s people.
If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice
, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:7)
The Adult Bible Studies Summer 2018 Series’
theme is Justice in the New Testament.
Most of the lessons are centered on God’s desires and Jesus’ demand for justice and mercy as a Kingdom work. The lessons convey those who are in the new life in Christ demonstrate this by their actions that serve God’s just and merciful nature. Followers must not give up on imitating God’s nature as long as injustice exists. The series lessons will predominantly come from the Matthew texts as well as other texts. The lessons will teach about the Law with God’s mercy as a divine balance for those followers of Jesus Christ.
The text in context
The writer of the lesson begins with an overview of what was happening before the controversy with the Pharisees over Jesus’ disciples “breaking the Sabbath law” (Matthew 12:2). We read that Jesus 1) gave instructions to the disciples (learners) on various matters (11:1) and 2) John the Baptist sends a question by his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another” (11:2). To stress the “political” adversarial relationship the rulers had towards God’s people, John is later beheaded over conflict with Herod and his family. Jesus also endures the grief of political adversaries as well as religious enemies. Upon Jesus receiving the news about John, he departs by boat to be alone (14:13).
We read in Chapter 11 that Jesus continues his mission of teaching and instructing the disciples and those gathered. (Jesus is a perfect model of how we should continue our mission and works even during difficult times.) The text tells us he is teaching about the judgment of unrepentance and pronouncing to some of the cities that he is the one that will disclose who God is (11:28). Now, to the Bible Lesson, at the beginning of Chapter 12, Jesus is teaching and explaining the importance of the Law and engages it within the context of humanity.
The Bible lesson
Questions from the Pharisees
Matthew 12:1-2: At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
The lesson’s writer reminds us the Biblical culture in Jesus’ time was that working on the Sabbath was strictly forbidden, and it is the same for the Jewish practice today, and defying this law was a violation of the sacred Sabbath law. As a point of reference, the writer mentions other observant laws such as the “preparation and eating of food, building things, slaughtering animals, and determining how far a person could walk without being judged as working on the Sabbath (a Sabbath’s day journey).” The lesson’s text is the focus of debates between Jesus and the Pharisees about what is lawful on the Sabbath. The Pharisees’ real question is an accusation towards Jesus as to why he was allowing his disciples to violate the sacred Sabbath law. However, the writer makes the point that Jesus by this time had cast out demons (Matthew 8:28 and following) and answered questions on fasting (9:14 and following) and knew how to counter accusations. Let’s see how he addresses the Pharisees’ question.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees
Matthew 12:3-5: He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?
The writer comments that Jesus’ response in using King David was one that no one could argue with because King David could be considered “one of the greatest political and military heroes of their nation” and argues whatever he did was acceptable except the David and Bathsheba story. What we read is Jesus questioning the Pharisees about David and his soldiers that were hungry and how they ate the bread of the presence in collusion with Ahimelech the priest (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The writer says Jesus makes the theological point through the story of David and his companions (means “together with bread”) that occasionally attending to the needs of humanity will be more important than obeying the ritual law. However, his answer does not end with the King David story as he engages in the priest and temple story from Numbers 28:9-10. From this text, he makes the point that the priests labored in the temple on the Sabbath day but were considered innocent of violating the Sabbath law. In other words, since the priests worked on the Sabbath in service of the Kingdom then undoubtedly them serving the human needs of the disciples would also be the kingdom of heaven works and not a law violation.
Ask 1) What is their cultural ritual as it pertains to the Sabbath? 2) What is their Sabbath ritual practice today? 2) How do you feel about Jesus’ responses to the Sabbath Law?
Jesus is greater than the Temple
Matthew 12:6-8: I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
The writer conveys that Jesus must have had the listeners’ minds in a state of wonderment with this temple reference and refers to him as being cryptically revelatory at times when he refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” more than 25 times in the New Revised Standard Version. In the Common English Bible’s translation, Jesus refers to himself as the “Human One,” an Aramaic and Greek expression which has a sense of “a human such as I.” These expressions are to remind us that Jesus is greater than the Temple. Jesus is also conveying that God has made him the Messiah with this new interpretation of the Law. The writer characterizes this as Jesus’ “human/divine authority to redefine what it means for his followers to obey the ritual law.” He also notes for us not to paint the Pharisees with a broad stroke as bad people, but to consider their intent to preserve the ritual law that was being violated in their culture and to consider their perspective that Jesus had overstepped his authority.
Ask: Do you think you would have understood Jesus’ cryptic revelations given to the audience during that time? Do you see Sabbath law violations today, or do you believe the Sabbath law is relevant today?
The controversy continues
: He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
The Pharisees’ accusatory drama continues as they confront Jesus about healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath and accuses him of violating the Law. The writer reminds us it was a violation of Sabbath law to heal, reap, thresh, and winnow. However, Jesus counters their question with the scenario of the troubled sheep, making the point they would show mercy and would rescue the sheep on the Sabbath. In essence, Jesus points the finger back at the Pharisees by exclaiming that the value of human beings should be more than a sheep. Regardless of their intentions, he was not hindered from doing good and healed the man’s withered hand, clearly making the point that it is right to do good on the Sabbath even while in the synagogue in front of the Pharisees.
Ask: How have they responded to accusations when doing Kingdom works or in other life works? What was the impact?
The overall focus from the lesson
Ultimately, the lesson aims to teach us that Jesus makes the point that human needs will occasionally supersede the Sabbath law and other ritual laws and we should act accordingly. However, even with the demonstrative stories he used about showing mercy and doing good on the Sabbath, the Pharisees did not give up their intensity on accusing Jesus. The writer states, “The Pharisees, in the zeal to preserve the observance of the Law, elevated the letter of the Law over its spirit,” as well as their pride of being correct, leading them to a way to destroy Jesus.
Ask: Have they ever been the “over-righteous/legalistic?” If so, what was the result?
The writer refers to Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:24 as metaphors to describe the Jewish law such as a “tutor, custodian, schoolmaster, or babysitter, using the Greek word Paidagogos.” Paul wrote that the “law was our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith.” It is clear the lesson aims to teach us the importance in recognizing the law in the community with one another, but we must understand that we are sometimes to override the law for the sake of mercy and doing good.
God, may we emulate your mercy and grace above sacrifice towards humanity, your Church, and in the world. May we not condemn those who are in need but speak truth to those who are in power and expose unethical and unjust behavior as we learned in the teachings of the parables. Amen.
Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell serves as the Associate Director for Connectional Ministries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The “Adult Bible Studies, Series Summer 2018, Justice in the New Testament” is used for the content of this lesson.