Matthew 12:1-21

Gospel Readings:

Matthew 12:1-8
Matthew 12:9-14
Matthew 12:15-21

Devotion 1

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.

Read: Matthew 12:1-8

Today’s reading narrates an incident which finds Jesus and his disciples in “the grainfields on the sabbath.” The disciples are not merely passing through the fields on their way to somewhere else—walking more than one kilometre was prohibited on the sabbath. Rather, they are there because they are hungry. Taking the unharvested produce from a field was a provision in the Torah which was specifically designed to help the poor:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God (Lev 19:9-10).

However in this instance, that Jesus and his disciples were gleaning on the sabbath brought them into conflict with the Pharisees, who interpreted their actions as work—and work was prohibited on the sabbath.1

This story likely brought up, for Matthew’s community, a pressing issue. Carter notes that,

[h]unger and food shortages were not unusual for natural (weather, diseases, crop failure) and human (hoarding, profiteering, war) reasons. The impact of food shortages followed lines of wealth and social strata, falling hardest on those with limited access to resources, especially urban laborers, crafts workers, and traders… Cities like Antioch regularly experienced food crises (e.g., famine in 46-47 C.E.).2

Should Matthew’s community, who had no doubt experienced hunger and the struggle for subsistence, be bound by such strict interpretations of Torah which emphasised sacrifice and purity? No, says Jesus. The sabbatical laws exist to facilitate a just and generous society free of the acquisitiveness and exploitation of the surrounding empire, not so hungry people may go without. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

Reflect:

  • Imagine you are part of Matthew’s community. What encouragement do you think this story would bring?
  • Consider the words of Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quotes: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What might it mean for you to live out these words this week?

Pray

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Close with the Lord’s Prayer

1. Deut 5:14: “…but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” Cf. Ex 20:10; 23:12.

2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitial and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 264.

 

Devotion 2

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.

Read: Matthew 12:9-14

As the argument continues, Matthew paints a tragic picture of just where the Pharisees’ zeal for legal purity and moral authority is leading them. They seem utterly oblivious to the suffering of the man with the “withered hand,” presumably one of “their synagogue.” Their concern is not for his healing and restoration, but to use him to find a pretext to bring charges against Jesus. We might wonder what kind of authority the Pharisees had over those in the synagogue. It seems, according to Matthew, that it was authority which was concerned with orthodoxy at all costs—not leadership which sought the restoration of the people.

The Pharisees’ question to Jesus sets up a heavy irony in the story. Their concern for keeping the sabbath might preclude healing, but apparently it doesn’t preclude plotting a murder! Here is the tragic result of their blindness. In their efforts to keep orthodoxy, the Pharisees have ceased to pursue good. Now violence is overtaking them.3

Reflect:

  • As you read today’s story, what emotions do you feel?
  • Are there things that are inspiring to you? Are there things that make you angry?
  • In what ways do you sense God inviting you to live out this story?

Pray for one another

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Close with the Lord’s Prayer

3. It is important to remind ourselves that Matthew’s Gospel is an intra-religious debate. That is, he writes as a Jew to critique those who wielded influence in the urban Jewish communities of his time—the Pharisees. It is not, as it has been too often interpreted, a Christian attack on the Jewish religion. Such readings have led to disastrous results.

 

Devotion 3

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.

Read: Matthew 12:15-21

As opposition to Jesus intensifies, he continues to gain popularity with the peasant crowds, inviting the question of whether Jesus will fulfil the role of popular king in the paradigm of David, to lead the people out of domination and into freedom. Here Matthew, drawing on Isaiah 42:1-4, provides an answer, at least in part. Isaiah 42:1-7 speaks of a royal figure who will bring about the release of captive Israel from exile under Babylon.4 In the ancient near East it was the role of kings to proclaim and enact justice, and upon ascension to the throne they were commonly known to proclaim the release of captives from prison.5 For Isaiah, however, this royal figure will not operate in the harsh, dominating manner of the Babylonian rulers, “which is to break such reeds and snuff out such wicks.” Rather, they are to “pursue a different way in the world—to refuse the modes of power mostly taken for granted.”6

Now Matthew presents Jesus as operating in this paradigm. He will proclaim justice to the nations—nations who, like Israel, are subjugated by Rome’s imperial power. Rome is brought into view here by Matthew’s rendering of the phrase “until he brings justice to victory (nikos).” “Victory”, not mentioned in the Isaiah passage, subtly references nike, the god of victory prominent in Roman imperial propaganda. According to Matthew, however, it is the justice of Jesus, not Rome, which will eventually triumph.

Reflect:

  • Read through the passage again. Is there a word or phrase which speaks to your experience?
  • In what sense might we participate in Jesus’ vocation articulated in these verses?
  • Are there ways in which you sense God inviting you to live out this story?

Pray. 

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Close with the Lord’s Prayer

 4. Thomas L. Leklerk, Yahweh is Exalted in Justice: Solidarity and Conflict in Isaiah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), Kindle loc. 1822.

5.  Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) 72-73.

6. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), Kindle loc. 1148.

 

Devotion 4

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.

This week’s Common Value: Inclusion

Read: Luke 14:15-24

Ask: How might we practice this kind of radical inclusion this week?

Pray

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer