At that time Jesus went through the cornfields 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.’ 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? 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.’ 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. When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’
Reflection Matthew shares with Mark (2:23-3:6) the two stories we get today. Firstly Jesus’ disciples go through the cornfields plucking the heads of grain and eating them. Secondly, we have the healing of the man with the withered hand and the question whether it is lawful to heal on the sabbath.
The hungry disciples walk through cornfields picking the heads of the grain and eating them. Some Pharisees complain that what the disciples are doing is not lawful on the sabbath.
Jesus’ response is to give an example from David’s life, how David and his companions eat the consecrated Bread of Presence. The implication is that the disciples are no more open to criticism for breaking the sabbath than David and the others are for eating consecrated bread.
Jesus goes on to refer to the priests who in their duties appear to be breaking the sabbath law, yet are guiltless. The priests are doing God’s work and so are the disciples, they may sustain themselves by plucking the heads of grain and eating them, even on the sabbath.
The argument moves on as Jesus reminds the critics that something greater than the Temple is here. Alluding to Hosea 6:6 Jesus says: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. Compassion has a place above regulations. ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath’. Jesus is above the sabbath and much else.
In the synagogue there is a man with a withered hand, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to heal on the sabbath. Jesus shows that good may be done on the sabbath by restoring the man. Compassion finds its place again.
We hear of the Pharisees conspiring against Jesus. So Jesus departs with the crowds, curing many of them.
The reading concludes with part of the servant song from Isaiah 42. In Jesus we find the compassionate servant, chosen by God.
Prayer O God of compassion, may we find rest, may we find food for our hunger, may we find healing, in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr David Whiting, Retired Minister living in Sunderland.