Lord of the Sabbath
1. At that time Jesus went on the Sabbaths through the grain; and His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck the ears [of grain], and to eat.
2. And the Pharisees seeing said to Him, “Behold, Thy disciples do that which is not permitted to do on a Sabbath.”
3. But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and they that were with him?
4. How he entered into the house of God, and ate the bread [that was] set out, which it was not permitted for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, except for the priests alone?
5. Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple profane and are guiltless?
6. And I say to you that a greater than the temple is here.
7. But if you had known what [this] is — I desire mercy and not sacrifice — you would not have condemned the blameless.
8. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
9. And passing on thence, He came into their synagogue.
10. And behold, there was a man having a dried-up hand, and they asked Him, saying, “Is it permitted to cure on the Sabbaths?” — that they might accuse Him.
11. And He said to them, “What man shall there be of you who shall have one sheep, and if it shall fall into a pit on the Sabbaths, will not [take] hold of it, and raise [it out]?
12. Therefore of how much more value is a man than a sheep? So then it is permitted on the Sabbaths to do well.”
13. Then He says to the man, “Stretch forth thy hand.” And he stretched [it] forth; and it was restored, well like the other.
14. And the Pharisees took counsel against Him, going out, that they might destroy Him.
15. But Jesus knowing [it], withdrew from thence; and there followed Him many crowds, and He cured them all;
16. And admonished them that they should not make Him manifest,
17. That it might be fulfilled what was declared by Isaiah the prophet, saying,
18. “Behold, My Servant whom I have laid hold of; My Beloved, in whom My soul is well pleased; I will put My spirit into Him, and He shall pronounce judgment to the gentiles.
19. He shall not contend, nor cry; neither shall anyone hear His voice in the streets.
20. A bruised reed He shall not break, and smoldering flax He shall not quench, until He put forth judgment to victory.
21. In His name the Gentiles shall hope.”
22. Then one demon-possessed was brought to Him, blind and mute; and He cured him, so that the blind and mute both spoke and saw.
23. And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Is not this the Son of David?”
24. But the Pharisees hearing said, “This [Man] does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub the ruler of the demons.”
25. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself, shall not stand.
26. And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?
27. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast [them] out? Therefore, they shall be your judges.
28. But if I cast out demons in the spirit of God, certainly the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
In the previous episode when Jesus said, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” He aligned Himself with the One who created the Sabbath — the day of rest. It is appropriate then, that the next episode begins on the Sabbath day. “At that time Jesus went through the corn fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears of corn and ate” (12:1). When the religious leaders find out about this, they are outraged, and they promptly tell Jesus that His disciples are breaking the Sabbath law: “Look,” they say, “Your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (12:2).
It is true that the Sabbath commandment, as given in the Hebrew scriptures, forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath. As it is written, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8-10).
The Hebrew scriptures are clear about the importance of observing the Sabbath, and the punishment for breaking this commandment is given in no uncertain terms. According to the book of Exodus, “The seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2). And just to be clear about what is meant by “work” on the Sabbath, this important teaching is added: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). We also read of a certain man who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath, presumably to kindle a fire. As a punishment for his disobedience, he was stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36).
The Law was clear, then, that no work of any kind was to be done on the Sabbath. But the religious leaders went a step further. Using their own reasoning, they explained how the Sabbath law prohibiting work might be applied to the most trivial acts. As a result, they spelled out numerous ways that the Sabbath might be violated. 1
Included in their list of prohibitions, is the act of plucking grain — which is precisely what the disciples did on this day. When the religious leaders saw this, they were infuriated. Their own traditions had taken on a sacred significance to them, and any violation of these traditions were equated with a violation of God’s law.
In their eagerness to enforce the letter of the law, the religious leaders had forgotten its spirit. The Sabbath is intended to be a day of rest, both physical and spiritual. It is a day to remember that God alone is the doer of all things, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In remembering this we have rest for our souls. In this state of rest we trust in God and let nothing disturb us. The raging fires of self-love, the flames of hatred, and the burning lusts of ambition are not kindled on this day, nor do we even gather sticks (complaints, irritations, etc.) to start such a fire. We remain peaceful, content, assured of God’s loving protection of our souls and His constant provision for every aspect of our lives. We spend a day enjoying the tranquility and peace of His presence. This is the Sabbath.
Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has preached, healed, and shown His wondrous power in numerous ways. Although He has done things which have offended and upset the religious leaders, He has not done anything which directly violates their priestly code — until now. The plucking of grain, because it was a form of harvesting, was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath, and yet Jesus allows His disciples to pluck the ears of corn and eat.
It is true that Jesus has already done things He knows will upset the religious authorities, such as forgiving sins and eating with sinners. But now, in allowing His disciples to do something that is directly against their strict code of Sabbath day regulations, He incurs their greatest wrath. He then goes on to tell them that even David, when He was hungry, went into the house of God and ate the showbread — illustrating that the preservation of human life challenges their inhumane, overly strict observance of this Sabbath commandment (12:3).
Jesus then incites further indignation, referring to Himself as being even greater than their holiest place of worship: “I say to you,” He says, “in this place there is One greater than the temple” (12:6). Any human being is of more value than an inanimate object, but Jesus implies much more. He then returns to the ongoing theme of His ministry — the emphasis on mercy, compassion and forgiveness over the empty rituals and meaningless sacrifices of the temple priests: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’” He says, “you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7). 2
And finally, He concludes with a most powerful assertion — so far — of His divinity: “For the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath” (12:8).
If the religious authorities ever wanted to establish a case against Jesus, and to accuse Him of blasphemy, Jesus is now giving them ample grounds to make that case!
But Jesus does not stop there. In the very next episode He goes directly into a synagogue where the religious leaders challenge Him with the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (12:9). This, of course, is a trick question, intended to trap Jesus. In fact, the religious leaders have already ruled that it is unlawful to give medical assistance on the Sabbath. For example, if a man has a broken arm, or even a toothache he must wait until the Sabbath ends before he can do anything about it. 3
Jesus, however, introduces a new, more merciful way of understanding the Sabbath. He asks, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Then, of how much more value is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (12:12). To further emphasize this point, Jesus turns to a man with a withered hand and says, “Stretch out your hand” (12:13). And as soon as the man stretches out his hand, it is healed (12:13).
One would think that the religious leaders would be impressed by this amazing miracle, and happy for the man who had been healed. On the contrary, they are outraged by what appears to them to be a flagrant disregard for their strict traditions. Because of this, they take counsel against Him, deliberating on “how they might destroy Him” (12:9). The irony is intense: the religious leaders take counsel to injure and destroy the One who has come to heal and to save.
While the religious leaders are secretly plotting His destruction, Jesus withdraws from the synagogue and openly continues His Sabbath work. “And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all” (12:15). It is noteworthy that Jesus does not confine his object lesson to healing just one person’s hand on the Sabbath. He heals “great multitudes”! It seems that He has a specific point to make, and He could not be making it more dramatically or in a more conspicuous way. He has said that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and now He demonstrates it repeatedly: He heals the multitudes.
In the midst of the many healings He is performing on the Sabbath, a demon-possessed man who is both blind and mute is brought to Him. Jesus heals him immediately of this triple handicap much to the amazement of the multitudes. But when the religious leaders hear about it, their response is predictably cynical: “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (12:24). This is now the second time that the religious leaders have publicly accused Jesus of casting out demons by the ruler of the demons (see 9:34). The first time, Jesus did not respond. But this time it is different. Jesus contradicts them, saying, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?” (12:26).
Self-will cannot cast out self-will. Ego cannot cast out ego. Satan cannot cast out Satan. If, for example, we try to cast out selfishness by powerful exertions of self-will — leaving out God, our efforts can never succeed. The simple fact is that only God can cast out the spirit of selfishness, only the Spirit of God can cast out demons. As Jesus says, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).
This episode, which is about “the Sabbath” ends with a description of how demons are cast out. Today we consider our “demons” to be anger, irritation, impatience, annoyance, and the many emotional disturbances that seem to destroy our inner peace, and often lead to our acting out against others. While these negative emotions may indeed have their origin in hell (“Satan”), we can remain secure and at peace when relying upon God. This is the true Sabbath. Whenever we choose to “rest in God,” the kingdom of God has come upon us. 4
Neutrality Is Not an Option
29. “Or how can anyone enter into the house of the strong [one] and plunder his vessels, unless he first bind the strong [one]? And then he will plunder his house.
30. He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that gathers not with Me, scatters.
31. Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men; but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven men.
32. And whoever says a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall say [it] against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that to come.
33. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree rotten and its fruit rotten; for from the fruit the tree is known.
34. Brood of vipers, how can you speak good [things], being wicked? For from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
35. The good man out of the good treasure of the heart puts forth good [things]; and the wicked man out of the wicked treasure puts forth wicked [things].
36. But I say unto you, that every idle saying which men shall speak, they shall render a word concerning it in the day of judgment.
37. For out of thy words thou shalt be justified, and out of thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
Peace is a great blessing. It is the inner reward that comes to everyone who lives according to God’s commandments. Trusting in God is not only the source of our peace, it is also the source of our inner strength; it is a mighty fortress against the destructive thoughts and feelings that would otherwise invade our mind, hold us captive, and steal our joy. In the prologue to the Ten Commandments, God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:1-2). In weak moments, when negative thoughts and feelings invade our minds, we are returning to the “house of bondage.” This captivity, or “spiritual bondage,” is what Jesus is referring to when He says, “How can anyone enter into a strong man’s house, and plunder his goods, except he first bind the strong man, and then he will plunder his house?” (12:29).
It is, therefore, necessary to remain steadfast in our devotion to God, to remain with Him always and not depart from His company. There is no middle way when it comes to the path of devotion. We can’t afford weak moments when we drop our guard, or half-hearted endeavors to do what is right. It’s all or nothing. We are either with the Lord, or we are not. Any chink in our armor, and weakness of character is an opening for the hells to burst through. Therefore, Jesus says, “He that is not with Me is against Me” and He adds, “he that gathers not with Me scatters abroad” (12:30).
Literally, “gathering and scattering” refers to Jesus’ telling His apostles to go forth and gather the harvest of good people everywhere, teaching them about the kingdom of God. The people who are lost and “scattered” must be gathered together and brought back to God. But if this work is not done, and if the traditions of men are taught in the place of the commandments of God, the people will be scattered further from God. On a more interior level, we too must gather what we have learned and put it to use; if not, evil desires and false thoughts will creep in, separating us further (“scattering us’) from all that is good and true.
Jesus knows that the corrupt religious leaders have been leading the people astray — “scattering them” — through their misleading and false teachings. Therefore, Jesus says to them, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the
Spirit will not be forgiven” (12:31). The blasphemy here referred to is the one which the religious leaders are committing at this very moment. They have just witnessed a great miracle of healing, and yet they refuse to attribute such a miracle to the Spirit of God. Instead, they attribute it to Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons. Thus, they interpret good as evil, attributing the power of healing to the demonic rather than to the Divine.
In interpreting good as evil, the religious leaders leave themselves without any hope for salvation or forgiveness, simply because they refuse to accept it. While God is pure mercy, love and forgiveness, none of these qualities can be experienced or received unless there is a sincere desire to receive them, and a willingness to live according to them. Jesus is the embodiment of these qualities. To reject Him is to reject all that He would freely give us.
In our own lives we do the same thing whenever we refuse to see the wonders that God is working in our lives at every moment, even when things appear to be going against our wishes. In practical terms, then, “to sin against the Holy Spirit” is to interpret the circumstances of our lives and the intentions of others as having some evil origin — similar to the way the religious leaders attributed evil motives to Jesus. We refuse to see any possible goodness that might be there, or how a particularly unpleasant situation could possibly turn out for the best. Whenever we do this, we sin against the Holy Spirit. We deny that God is working with us always, in every circumstance, to refine our spirits so that we might eventually be able to realize the greatest possible happiness.
Not everything that happens will please us, but everything that happens should be interpreted as leading, in some way, to a good end. 5
When we think in this way, striving to see the good intentions behind people’s actions, and striving to put a good interpretation on everything we see, we discover the key to peace and happiness. We begin to understand that God, in mysterious ways, is providing or permitting all things; and despite all appearances to the contrary, we are constantly being led into increasingly interior states of peace and joy. 6
Jesus then returns to the theme of being either for Him or against Him — either for good or against it. We cannot have it both ways; and neutrality is not an option. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good,” says Jesus, “or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for from the fruit the tree is known” (12:33). It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look, I just healed a man whose hand was withering away with leprosy. Can’t you see that what I have done is good? Or, do you see everything I do as evil because you are evil?” Jesus puts it more directly: “O generation of vipers,” He says, “how can you, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34).
Whatever is in our heart will eventually come out through our words and actions: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (12:35). There is no escape from this timeless spiritual principle. As Jesus puts it, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shall be justified, and by thy words thou shall be condemned” (12:35-37).
These are serious warnings. Is it possible that the religious leaders will take these warnings to heart? Will they repent and change their ways? Or will they remain entrenched in their stubborn desire to destroy Jesus, interpreting the good that He does as evil? The next episode will provide some important clues.
The Sign of the Prophet Jonah
38. Then answered some of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Teacher, we will to see a sign from Thee.”
39. But He answering said to them, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
41. The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, [One who is] more than Jonah [is] here.
42. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, [One who is] more than Solomon [is] here.
43. And when the unclean spirit has come out from the man, he passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find [it].
44. Then he says, ‘I will return into my house, whence I came out’; and coming, he finds [it] empty, swept, and adorned.
45. Then he goes and takes with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in, they dwell there; and the last [things] of that man are worse than the first. So shall it also be to this wicked generation.”
46. And [while] He yet spoke to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak to Him.
47. And someone said to Him, “Behold, Thy mother and Thy brothers stand outside, seeking to speak to Thee.”
48. But He answering said to those that told Him, “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers?”
49. And stretching forth His hand to His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers.
50. For whoever shall do the will of My Father who is in the heavens, he is My brother, and sister, and mother.”
As the next episode begins, it seems that the religious leaders might be relenting somewhat in their campaign to destroy Jesus. Addressing Him as “Master,” they say, “We want to see a sign from You” (12:38). But, Jesus, who knows their every thought, is not fooled by their pretended interest. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign,” Jesus says, “and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah” (12:39). Jesus goes on to recount how Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, just as “the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40).
While the story of Jonah traditionally signifies Jesus’ burial and resurrection, it also represents the wonder of human regeneration. 7
The only real sign of regeneration is the living experience of inner change that comes over people as they strive to keep the commandments, putting away selfish concerns and materialistic pre-occupations, gradually becoming kinder, gentler, more peaceful human beings.
Spending “three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish” represents the dark times of inner struggle and turmoil that we go through in the process of our regeneration. The number “three” is a symbolic term, meaning a complete cycle of time, as in “morning, noon, and night,” and because of this, it represents a full period of temptation with a “beginning, middle, and end.” 8
This process cannot be faked or side-stepped. And there are no shortcuts. Jesus warns that a momentary change of mind will do us no good if not accompanied by a change of heart. In the case of the religious leaders, Jesus sees through their hypocritical requests for more “signs” of His divinity. A shallow religious faith is based on signs and miracles; deep faith comes about through a repentant heart. So, Jesus takes them back to the story of Jonah who taught repentance to the people of Ninevah: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” Jesus then adds, referring to Himself, “a greater than Jonah is here” (12:41). He then talks about Solomon, the great king who was a universal symbol of wisdom, adding, “a greater than Solomon is here” (12:42).
Jesus is telling them, in no uncertain terms, that no one is greater than He is. These are not the claims of an ordinary person. He then tells them a seemingly disconnected story about an unclean spirit that leaves a person and roams about looking for a place to rest. But finding no place to rest, it returns to the person, bringing along with it seven more spirits even more wicked than itself. These spirits now reenter the person and dwell there, “and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (12:43-45). Jesus is saying, “Look, even if I gave you a sign and it caused you to temporarily believe in Me, it would do you no good. In fact, it would be worse for you because you would return to your prior condition, seven times more adamant in your unbelief.” All this is contained in Jesus’ brief statement reminding the religious leaders that a mere sign cannot fundamentally change a wicked heart: “Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation” (12:46).
Regeneration, then, not signs and miracles, is the only way. And there is no regeneration without temptation. Each of us will go through numerous times of temptation in our lives, and each time it will feel like a death and a resurrection. Each time something of our selfish nature will die; at the same time, if we turn to God, applying His truth and praying for His power — something new will be born in us. This is our resurrection to new life, a gradual process that begins in this life and continues throughout eternity. This is what is meant by the miracle of regeneration — and this is “the sign of the Prophet Jonah.” 9
Regeneration comes about through living according to the will of God. There is no other way, and no miracle that can take its place. The path is simple and direct, and those who choose to follow it are “born again” to new life. For this reason, this section of the narrative closes with a brief episode in which Jesus’ mother and brothers seek to speak with Him. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to introduce people to a new and higher perspective on family relationships. Stretching out His hands towards His disciples, He says, “Here are My mother and My brothers. For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (12:50).
As we go about our daily lives, striving to do the will of our Father in heaven, we might notice small changes arising in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We might notice that we are becoming more patient in situations that might have annoyed us at one time; we might find ourselves becoming less defensive, and more inclined to consider the perspectives and feelings of others; we might find ourselves less invested in having things done our way, and more concerned about meeting the needs of others. Whatever it might be, these moments of “new life” that arise in us are a result of the regeneration process. These are some of the many ways we experience “the sign of the prophet Jonah.”