Most of us would fall into one of two categories: the rule followers and the rule “benders.” You immediately know which one you are. In our household we have a mix - our oldest, like most oldest children, is a rule follower for sure, and our middle is the #1 rule breaker. But if someone else is breaking the rules, then he becomes the #1 rule enforcer, emphasis on force. And then we have a toddler, and what are rules to toddlers?!
In our passage today in Matthew 12 we see Jesus being confronted by some Pharisees. These Pharisees, these religious leaders, were ALL about the rules. They knew and studied all of the rules laid out in the Old Testament. They were so into the rules though that they were concerned with the letter of the law, not the heart of it. They were so concerned with people following the rule exactly as it was stated that they often missed the point and the purpose of the rule, which in general was to bring people closer to God’s heart.
I didn't grow up in the church and until I met Jesus, this was my perception of Christianity. That it was a set of rules for people to follow in order to be good people and get into Heaven, which honestly misses the mark of the full picture of God’s Kingdom. Following Jesus is so much richer and more dynamic than simply a list of rules and a ticket to Heaven. Sadly, I know a lot of people, who grew up in the church, who have this same perception. Maybe you grew up with this perception - that it’s all about the rules, or at least looking like you’re following the rules, so you don’t embarrass yourself or your family members.
This section of Scripture has a number of examples of the Pharisees confronting Jesus about the rules. The first example is when Jesus and His disciples picked grain to eat on the Sabbath. Picking grain was considered work and the Sabbath was a holy day set apart from the other days and you weren’t supposed to do any work on the Sabbath - there were rules against it!
Then, on that same Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand, which was also considered “work.” This made the Pharisees furious. Who was this man who claimed to be the Son of Man, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, that He should be able to “disregard” these rules they had so staunchly held to? They wanted to kill Him for it. Throughout Matthew 12 they continued to try to ensnare Jesus and turn people against Him by claiming He was doing this all by demonic power and demanding a sign from Jesus.
Now, keep in mind that every Gospel, each one of the four, was written with an audience and a purpose in mind. We are a part of the universal audience of Scripture, but at the time this was actually first written by Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Matthew had a people in mind he was writing down these accounts of Jesus for. His target audience was Jewish. This gospel was written to be circulated among the early Jewish Christian church, the churches that were made up of Jewish people who now know and love Christ. So all over Matthew’s Gospel, more than the other Gospels, Matthew is making connections to the Old Testament, quoting Old Testament Scripture and showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies they would all be so familiar with. This is different than Mark’s Gospel, for example, which was written to be circulated among Romans, who don’t know all these Old Testament prophecies. So later, when we are in Mark together, you’ll see his Gospel is more action-oriented, focusing on the things Jesus does as proving His divinity but there’s not all the Old Testament quotes like there are here in Matthew.
To us, in our context and culture of work 8 days a week and have 7 side hustles, we might think “no big deal, so what? The disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, of course they had to eat.” But a first century Jew hearing this, they would immediately know what big of a deal this is and
they might be a little uncomfortable hearing this. They might even be a little bit mad at Jesus, like the Pharisees. Or relieved, as I’m sure the crippled man was.
How does Jesus respond?
First, Jesus gets a little bit sassy with the Pharisees here. In verses 3-8 He uses other examples from the Old Testament, and Jesus says “Haven’t you read what David did…” and “Or haven’t you read in the Law that…” Of course they had! They were good, studious Pharisees! By saying this and drawing from these examples, Jesus is pointing out their hypocrisy that they’d be so to the letter on the rules, yet disregard these other instances of Scripture.
Secondly, Jesus reveals His compassion. Right before He heals the man’s hand He says in verses 11 and 12: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the the Sabbath!”
Jesus saw that more important than following the rules for the rules sake, was the person in front of Him. This man with a crippled hand. This man, who probably had no means of work and income because of his hand. This man who was probably looked down upon by others because of his hand. This man who others probably assumed, as they often did in that time, had deep sin in his life which cause his crippled hand, with a sort of “he got what he deserved” attitude. This man, socially and spiritually outcast because of his hand. But Jesus saw this man, saw his humanity and fully healed, fully restored him. The Pharisees were so miffed that he would do work on the Sabbath that they neglected to see this man’s humanity, his need for healing, and his need for Jesus.
Earlier in verse 7 Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 from the Old Testament saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Some of the rules that the Pharisees and first century Jews would have been familiar with were the rules and expectations surrounding ritual sacrifices in order to be made right by God. Here Jesus is saying he doesn’t want us just going through the motions of religious expectation to check the box that we did it, but he wants our heart in it. He wants real worship from us. He wants us to be led by mercy and compassion more than a rigid adherence to expectations and rules. He’s not saying we throw out the rules altogether, they serve a purpose and that purpose is to draw us and others closer to God’s heart. But if the rules become more important than the people the rules are for, then we need a perspective shift. This can be hard. Why? Because this is messier. It requires more of us. It requires us to actually see the humanity in ourselves and other people and it requires us to have compassion.
The application for us is twofold: Both for our own worship of God and how we view others. It’s an opportunity for a heart check. In my own worship of Him, am I simply going through the motions, checking the boxes so I look like I’ve got it all together or am I so weighed down by trying to meet others’ expectations that I’m missing out on truly worshiping my Savior? And then how do I view others? Am I quick to judge others based on appearances like the Pharisees? Am I putting the rules above people? Do I need a divine perspective shift?
So today would we know that the Lord looks upon us with compassion and would we freely seek others’ good and have compassion on those around us. Would we live lives full of mercy and worship, even if it’s messy, and not lives full of perfect-looking but empty-hearted “going-through-the-motions” sacrifice. Would we all live in that space of being keenly aware of our own and others’ need for Christ.