I am quite big on consistency. I like to believe that I think both logically and consistently (no doubt other opinions on how I think are available). Consistency really does matter to me and I find it hard to settle when there are nagging points of inconsistency in my frame of understanding. I have a tendency to pull at threads as they appear and, more often than not, keep pulling until the whole thing unravels or I need to find a credible solution that appears to plug the gap. That is until another thread appears that requires another deep dive down a particular rabbit hole in order to find an appropriate patch for my framework. Sometimes so many patches are required that you end up deciding the framework must be junked and re-evaluated altogether. But suffice to say, I find inconsistency minimally annoying and, more often than not, quite troubling to the degree that I cannot easily rest until I have some sort of workable solution that patches the hole.
All of that makes Jesus’ words to the Pharisees difficult for me. The point of dispute in Matthew 12 is the disciples plucking heads of grain on the sabbath. It is worth saying, before going further, that (regardless of one’s view) Jesus is not revoking the sabbath command here. The Old Covenant remains fully in force at the time of the discussion and so, irrespective of what we think may or may not happen to the sabbath command in the New Covenant, Matthew 12 is clearly not its revocation. That is to say, whether the sabbath continues or not, Jesus isn’t addressing that particular question in any direction here.
What he does do, however, is quite significant. Particularly, it ought to be said, for those of us who are desperate to be utterly consistent. Here is the relevant section:
At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
3 He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry: 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate[a] the bread of the Presence—which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or haven’t you read in the law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice,[b] you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”Matthew 12:1-8
Interestingly, Jesus does not tell the Pharisees they are wrong here. He seems to accept, technically and by the letter of the law, the disciples were indeed breaking the sabbath command. But, he goes on, let me give you a couple of examples where you accept breaking the sabbath is absolutely the right thing to do.
So, Jesus notes the example of David allowing his men to eat the bread of the presence. This was, by the letter of the law, very much unlawful. David and his men should not have even entered the bit of the temple where the bread was let alone eat what was reserved for the priests alone. But the Pharisees accept that David is innocent, despite breaking the law here, seemingly because it is David – God’s anointed – doing it. Jesus isn’t suggesting that because David broke the law it’s okay for everyone else to break the law as they see fit. Rather, he seems to be arguing that if David can legitimately set aside the law because there is a greater more pressing matter – in this case, the hunger of his men – then the one who is greater than David ought to be able to set aside the same law in the face of the greater need of his disciples needing something to eat.
The second example Jesus offers follows similar logic. Jesus makes clear that the priests absolutely violate the sabbath every week in the temple. He doesn’t say ‘technically they don’t’, but is quite clear that technically, by the letter, they do. Nevertheless, the importance of temple worship – the means by which Israel worshipped and met with God – meant that the sabbath command had to be set aside in the case of the priests. Again, Jesus point seems to be that if the temple worship was so important that it meant the sabbath command had to be set aside for the priests, how much more can the one who is greater than the temple set aside the command when there are matters of higher priority at stake? Matthew has been at pains up to this point in his gospel to point out that Jesus is the fulfilment of old covenant types and prophecies and that, as God’s anointed messiah, has authority over the Law of Moses. Here, he shows that Jesus has authority over the law and has the legitimate authority to determine when higher priorities mean the law should be set aside.
This is the point that culminates in Jesus’ comment in vv7-8. Jesus insists that God’s priority is mercy and not sacrifice. The law, which was given for the good of his people, must be applied in such ways as it clearly serves the good of his people. To leadenly apply the law in the way the Pharisees were doing made it both a burden to God’s people and ended up undermining the very purpose for which the law was given. Jesus – in claiming to be Lord of the sabbath – is saying he has God’s authority to determine what God’s purpose is in the law. He is therefore able to determine when the law should be set aside, knowing when God would rather show mercy to those who break it than to enforce the law leadenly in such ways that it undercuts the very purpose for which it was given.
In this particularly case, Jesus’ disciples were innocent not because they didn’t break the law, because Jesus appears to agree that they did. Rather, they were innocent because God has determined to show mercy, and thus declare innocent, those who break the law in this kind of situation because he has a higher priority of serving the good of his people. In this case, that meant not forcing them to go unnecessarily hungry by leadenly applying a law that wasn’t designed to govern the specific situation. This is also why David was also innocent when he broke the law because he was serving the good of his men and not letting them go hungry, a situation in which God would evidently prefer to show mercy to the law breaker. It is also why the priests were innocent too, because they were serving God’s higher priority of helping his people worship him properly and so he shows mercy to them as they evidently break the law in line with his higher priorities.
If we are inclined to be sympathetic to the Pharisees at this point – after all, aren’t they really just trying to honour God through their zealous, albeit misapplied, law-keeping? – Matthew also offers us vv9-14. Here, we see the Pharisees quite happy to lessen the requirements of the law when it suits them. They won’t help a man with a withered hand on the sabbath but they are more than happy to pull their property out of a pit. The man can wait until Sunday but it won’t do if they might lose money on a sheep that gets stuck on the sabbath. They are also quite happy to set aside fairly absolute parts of the law – like the command not to murder – when Jesus appears to challenge their authority. Apparently their zealousness and leaden application of the law doesn’t come into it when they decide they don’t like what Jesus has to say. Any sympathy we might have with them as zealous keepers of the law trying to honour God as best they are able is absolutely undone in vv9-14 – they are self-serving and do not love God’s people at all. They are happy to let people suffer but won’t suffer the loss of their property or position.
But the point Jesus’ makes is both a simple, and yet to people like me, a deeply troubling one. His position seems to be that we cannot be entirely consistent. There will be times when we have to waive God’s law – trusting that he would (and therefore he would have us) show mercy rather than leadenly apply the letter of the law in every case. Whether that is because the command in question is not designed to deal with this particular situation or the specific law, if applied by the letter in this case, will actually lead to harm and damage. But that means, inevitably, we cannot ever be entirely consistent. There will be times when God’s law, which we firmly believe and reckon to be good and right, must be set aside.
Incidentally, that is precisely the issue at stake in the parable of the good Samaritan. Those who left the man in the road to die were not doing so just because they were uncaring. Maybe they had a bit of a troubled conscience about doing so, Jesus doesn’t say (it isn’t the primary point). But what is clear is they are doing their level best to honour God by keeping the law. It is not appropriate to touch dead bodies on the sabbath lest you become unclear. It wouldn’t be appropriate to stop and help this man as you are on the way to temple to fulfil your obligations. The demands of the law are entirely clear on these points and these men would be breaking it were they to do these things. But Jesus point is that there is a weightier matter that they are ignoring. In the end, they are breaking the law that calls them to love their neighbour. In the circumstances, they should have been asking: a) would God deem it more important for me to be at the temple or for me to stop this man dying; and, b) if I am inevitably going to have to break the law, on which ground is God more likely to want to show me mercy?
The good Samaritan is another worked example of Jesus’ teaching on the sabbath here. There are times when we cannot consistently keep God’s law without breaking it somewhere else. If God’s priority is his people, and his law and commands are for their good, we have to prioritise what application of the law would work for the good of God’s people in this situation and not do what the letter of the law may demand but will necessarily damage them if we did it. We will inevitably wander into situations whereby doing one bit of the law necessarily means we won’t be able to do another bit. Which is just another way of saying we cannot be entirely consistent.
That, of course, is no good at all when you are the kind of person who relishes consistency of thought and wants to have a consistent system/framework. There is a consistent way to hold these things together by having a consistent ordering of biblical principles that we think reflects God’s priorities. I shan’t get into here exactly what they may be and how we might work them out. Nor do I want to get into any specific examples of when and where we might have to set aside one law to meet the demands of another weightier one. These are of course the things of Christian debate and we may all draw our line on them in different places. You may think I should waive something I don’t, I may set aside a matter you think wrong. Let each be convinced in his own mind, it is before his own master he stands or falls. But what we can say is that the call to be totally consistent is neither a biblical, nor even a possible, one. Which is, if I’m being honest, something of pain in the neck when you are built to think the way I am.