(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

This passage, which deals with Jesus' reaction to the Pharisees' legalistic attitude to the Sabbath, is important. Both Matthew and Mark cover the same ground. I will draw from all three synoptic gospels in this exposition.

Evangelicals do not all admire Jesus teaching on the Sabbath and some seem almost in sympathy with the Pharisees. They are legalistic about Sunday observance - a day they mistakenly refer to as the Sabbath.

William Barclay's commentaries are far the best on this subject - probably because he was such a champion of 'grace'.

(B) False accounting by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees reckoned that keeping the rules and regulations governing what could and could not be done on the Sabbath was a test for, and measure of, devotion to God. Sabbath observance was certainly something that distinguished Jew from Gentile. It could prove costly. William Barclay describes how the forces of Antiochus massacred groups of Jews during the uprising of Judas Maccabaeus because they refused to fight on the Sabbath.

So, then, the Pharisees believed that the more meticulously Sabbath rest was observed the more righteous you were. Consequently they picked on the disciples who walking through the cornfields began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. v1. In the eyes of the Pharisees the disciples were guilty of harvesting, threshing and winnowing on the Sabbath. They asked, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" v2.

On another Sabbath the legalists gathered in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching in the expectation that he would heal and give them an opportunity to accuse him of breaking God's Law.

The mind set of the Pharisees has been the curse of Christianity through the ages. Let us consider the false criteria used to distinguish between 'true' or 'proper' or 'sound' Christians from the rest:

(1) Church attendance.

I have heard believers speak disparagingly of 'oncers' - that is folk who attend church only once on a Sunday. I have been guilty of doing this myself! Other Christians are apt to promote those that attend the midweek prayer meeting to the first division of the church and demote those that that don't to the second division.

I can remember my mother saying after she had attended six or seven chapel services one week, "You can have too many meetings." She thought there was no substitute for doing good and helping others.

(2) Attitude to the Bible.

There is a very real tendency amongst Christian fundamentalists to demonise believers who do not take the Bible literally. I heard a man say from our pulpit that it was impossible to preach the gospel if you didn't take Jonah and Job literally. Yet the fact of the matter is the most extreme fundamentalist doesn't take the whole of Scripture literally. I was reminded of this as I read, 'The Last Days of Henry 8th', by Robert Hutchinson. John Lambert, an Anabaptist, was tried before King Henry for heresy. The king demanded to know whether Lambert believed the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ. Lambert replied that he agreed with St Augustine that the bread and wine represented the body of Christ after a certain manner. This was not good enough for King Henry. He wanted to know whether Lambert was prepared to say they were the body of Christ or not. The prisoner replied, "It was not his body. I deny it."

"Mark well," said the king, "for now you shall be condemned even by Christ's own words: 'This is my body.'"

And for that - his unwillingness to take the Bible literally - Lambert burned. He didn't die until his legs had been burnt to stumps! His last words were: None but Christ! None but Christ!"

The real tragedy for me is that some Christians are prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend the Genesis account of Creation but take the Sermon on the Mount with a pinch of salt. They are no more willing to love their enemies or do good to those who persecute them than the man in the moon.

(3) Commitment or adherence to a set of doctrines.

Reformed Baptists put great store by this. Pastors or elders who do not adhere to the Baptist Confession of 1689 are not welcomed into fellowship.

(4) Trivia.

I don't really know what else to call the conduct that some Christians find so unacceptable. Philip Yancey deals with this in the chapter on 'Grace Avoidance' in his book, 'What's So Amazing About Grace.' At the Bible College he attended female students were forbidden to wear skirts above the knee, slacks or polka-dot dresses. Men were not allowed to have facial hair or long hair. Rock music, cigarettes and alcohol were banned. The students were issued with a 66-page book of rules and expected to keep them all.

Legalism of this kind still exists. I heard recently of a bust up in a church where a meal is eaten between services over whether the crumbs should be hoovered up on 'the Sabbath'.

(C) Christ's true reckoning.

In our passage Jesus made clear - as always - what true religion involved:

(1) It cannot ignore men's needs.

Jesus justified his disciples behaviour by referring to David and the consecrated bread. This indicates both Jesus' knowledge of the Old Testament and his willingness to make an unorthodox application of it. David fled from Saul with a few of his friends and came to Nob. He and his men were very hungry, so Ahimelech gave David consecrated bread that had been on the golden table in the Tent of Meeting and which was reserved for the priest's use only. Ahimelech believed, and Jesus agreed with him, that David's need for food was such that the ceremonial law could be broken. Jesus was clearly implying that the disciples' hunger justified breaking the prohibition on work on the Sabbath.

Jesus did not argue that the disciples were not working! Nor did Jesus say that what they were doing was trivial. I suppose that is what most Christians think today. Jesus accepted that his disciples were working and breaking the law - but their need justified it.

Sometimes rules should be broken to meet a human need. Here are a few examples:

    (a) A few years ago my friend Tommy Bamber and I went on a bird watching holiday to Japan. We ended up in N.E. Hokkaido where a guide took us out three evenings at dusk to see the very rare fish owl. We stood on a bridge in the gloom hoping one would fly overhead. Nobody was allowed on the reserve where the owls roosted. Volunteers stood guard at the entrance. Just as we were about to give up in disappointment for the third and last consecutive night the guards relented and took us onto the reserve to see the owls. They recognised the need of two mad English birdwatchers who had travelled thousands of miles to see a Japanese speciality.

    (b) When I was a lad my father did not permit me either to play or to do school homework on Sundays. I was so bored and depressed that I invariably got an asthma attack. It is amazing how many people my age and over disliked Sunday because other than attend church there was nothing to do. Children need to play. My father never lifted his prohibition on playing football or cricket on the village green but he did eventually sanction homework to save me from recurrent asthma. He recognised my need!

    (c) In Britain today there are rules and regulations about making physical contact with children. These rules apply in churches and schools. I realise that children need to be safe - but they also need affection. Whenever one of the girls I taught came up to me and said, "Mr Reed, can I have a hug." I never said no! If a little child runs to their Sunday school teacher for comfort it would be a sad thing to withhold it.

Jesus placed a great emphasis on meeting human need. In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats it is the people who show hospitality to strangers, give food to the hungry, clothes to the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned that are rewarded with eternal life.

(2) Kindness takes precedence over duty.

Jesus referred to a second instance where work was permissible on the Sabbath. The priests were allowed to work on the Sabbath in order to make the continual burnt offering. See Numb28v1to10. The Pharisees would agree that such work was allowed because the priests had a duty to the temple. Jesus said: "I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' you would not have condemned the innocent."

Jesus was saying that mercy or kindness comes before duty. If the Pharisees had only been kind they would not have condemned the innocent.

Some more examples:

    (a) Churchmen have done some terrible things in the line of duty. Henry 8th considered it his duty to rid the country of heretics in the name of Christ. Consider the treatment meted out to poor Anne Askew for preaching against the 'Real Presence' in the bread and wine of the Mass. She was a woman of great spirit. When asked by the Mayor of London if she taught that the priest cannot make the body of Christ she replied: "I say so, my lord, for I have read 'God made man,' but that man can make God I never yet read, nor, I suppose ever shall read it." Eventually Anne was arrested and questioned on the rack in the hope that she would incriminate queen Katherine's ladies in waiting. She was racked - tearing her muscles and sinews and cracking her bones till nigh dead - but she kept silent. Eventually, Anne Askew in too much pain to stand and sitting in a chair, was burnt.

    How could they do it! Jesus rejected violence. In the garden of Gethsemane, at his arrest, he told Peter to put away his sword. He did not require that kind of defence!

    (b) People can be neglected out of a sense of duty. Jesus said of the Pharisees: "But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother." Mk7v11. In other words if a man decides to do his duty to God by leaving all his money to the temple when he dies it is quite all right to neglect his parents. Jesus did not agree!!

    It has been known for preachers to spend so much time in their studies, at meetings and in committees that they fail to spend time with their children.

    Mrs Jellby in Dicken's 'Bleak House' was a case in point. Mrs Jellby spent so much time writing letters and getting up petitions on behalf of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger that she totally neglected her children. Dickens described the state of her eldest daughter who worked as her mother's unpaid scribe thus: I suppose nobody was in such a state of ink. And from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place. The whole household was in a complete state of disarray. Mrs Jellby was not kind to her family!

    (c) We can play safe out of a sense of duty. Whenever I organised Geography fieldtrips for my pupils I allowed them a certain amount of free time. As soon as you allow pupils free time you run a risk. That is why some schools are doing away with the lunch break. Free time gives children the opportunity to get up to mischief. It isn't kind to play safe. Children need some freedom to play, have fun, socialise and do their own thing. Some of the highlights of my time at school took place in the playground - like sliding from the top to the bottom of it on snowy winter's days. Today, of course, that would be banned on health and safety grounds!

    Churches can play safe especially when it comes to finance. Some church members like to have plenty of money in the bank to use in emergencies and so are reluctant to give it away to good causes.

    (d) We can forget to be kind if we focus too hard on our duty. Recently I read a few short articles in a well-known Christian magazine. The articles were an encouragement to me and I used brief extracts in two of my expositions on this website. So I wrote to the editor of the magazine expressing my appreciation and saying what I had done. He e-mailed me back telling me to remove the quotations at once as I was in breach of copyright. He had a duty to protect the author's intellectual property. It was a cold response, legalistic and lacked grace. It wasn't kind. I may have made a mistake - the editor was glad to point that out - but it showed no generosity of spirit. Editors of religious magazines and authors of Christian literature need to remember what Jesus said: "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back." Luke6v30. What can Jesus mean by this? Well he's surely saying that we should not be controlled by the spirit that says: "That's mine - hands off." "That's mine - get off." That's mine - give it back." Jesus was against possessiveness. He was for grace.

(3) It values people more than things.

He (Jesus) said to them, "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 man than a sheep. Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Mt12v11and12.

Jesus considered that men were more valuable than property! Our priority should not be to protect property - like the editor I mentioned above - but to help people. It was on this basis that Jesus healed the man with the withered hand in defiance of the Pharisees.

Some observations:

    (a) If a farmer has a prize bull sick he will call out the vet whatever the time of day or night. And the vet will come! Payment depends upon is coming! It is unlikely that the farmer would get such prompt treatment for his sick mother-in-law! Why is that? Well, one reason is that the bull can be sold for thousands of pounds but no one would buy the farmer's mother-in-law. He couldn't even give her away!

    (b) I know for a fact that some men make more fuss of their motorcars than they do their wives. The car gets stroked and caressed lovingly - the wife is lucky to get the occasional kiss!

    (c) If something goes wrong with our house - a pipe leaks or a window breaks - we get it put right straight away. Yet we may ignore fractures and divisions in our church fellowship and just hope they will go away.

    (d) There is a type of Christian who is always willing to contribute financially to improve the church building but never gives a penny to humanitarian aid.

    (e) Christians should be prepared to help others - even when it is inconvenient to do so. One evening my old friend John Clarkson went to bed early because he was feeling unwell. About 10.30 am there was agitated knocking at his door. It was George - he wanted to speak to Mr Clarkson. Mrs Clarkson told George that her husband was in bed. But George insisted he must speak to Mr Clarkson. Hearing a commotion downstairs John called down to see what George wanted. His two lady friends had missed the last bus home to Bury St Edmunds. Could Mr Clarkson give them a lift into Bury. Mrs Clarkson had decided views on the subject! John got up and took the two women into Bury. When he got home his wife had locked him out! He had to climb a ladder and get in through the bedroom window! John showed a Christian spirit by helping at an inconvenient time. His wife did not!

    (f) Christians should aid others even at some personal risk to themselves. Jesus healed the man with the withered hand even though it antagonised the Pharisees. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. The Good Samaritan put himself at risk when he stopped to help the man who was robbed on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was a hard thing for him to do. I read in the Daily Telegraph of a woman raped in broad daylight by the side of a busy road. Cars slowed down to see what was going on but none stopped! When Sir Anthony Knyvett, Lieutenant of the Tower, was told to rack poor Anne Askew to get information about queen Katherine's ladies in waiting he refused. He claimed, rightly, that it was illegal. After Anne was racked Knyvett took a boat to Westminster and complained to king Henry about the woman's torture. He took a big, big, risk to do the right.

(D) Christ's supremacy in all things.

Jesus called himself Lord of the Sabbath: "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." Mt12v9. Christians need to apply these words to Sunday. Followers of Jesus do not observe the Sabbath. Sunday is not primarily a day of rest; it is a day of worship because it was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath he is most definitely Lord of the Christian Sunday.

(1) Jesus, Lord of Sunday, is perfectly entitled to tell us how to observe it. He most certainly does not give us a list of do's and don'ts. The only advice he left his disciples is recorded by Mark: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Mk2v27. The Sabbath was introduced for man's benefit - to give him a day of rest. It wasn't supposed to make men's lives a misery. That is what all the rules and regulations about what was work and what wasn't did. Sabbath rest was not something to be legalistic about. So, I believe, we are free to use God's gift of the Christian Sunday as we choose. It is very wrong to condemn other Christians for not observing it as we do.

(2) If Jesus is Lord of Sunday then it is his day. Christian should be glad to make it his day by:

    (a) Expressing their love for Jesus in worship. That surely is what happens when we have a special day - a 50th birthday, a ruby wedding anniversary, a retirement party. People who love us gather together and in one way or another express their admiration and affection. That is what worship is all about.

    (b) Showing love for one another because this is Jesus' declared wish. There are many ways to do this. At the very least it involves meeting with our fellow Christians. We cannot show love to others by stopping at home and watching TV all day! However, it is not necessary to be in church to demonstrate love for other Christians. We can visit the old and sick in hospital, nursing home or their own home on Sunday. We can baby sit so that a husband and wife are free to attend church together. Perhaps, on occasions, a barbeque, picnic or other outing could take the place of a church service. As Jesus said: "Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Mt12v12.

(3) Jesus is our Lord and Master in all things. We need to heed his teaching and follow his example. Jesus was never legalistic, he hated it in his enemies and discouraged it in his followers. The words in the passage we need to take to heart before all others are: If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent." Mt12v7.

Sadly, the innocent are still condemned by the very people who should know better!