The Pharisees were extremely knowledgeable about the Law. They were extremely concerned with following the Law themselves, and with others following the Law. They made rules that were even stricter than the Law – as long as you followed the rules, there was no chance of breaking the Law. They were men of great stature and power in society, men with a certain image and reputation to protect.
What they failed to understand, was that there was something greater.
That failing immediately put them at odds with the Teacher, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Matthew Chapter 12. It plays out in three scenes.
In the first, Jesus and his disciples are headed to the synagogue on the Sabbath. They’re hungry. Passing through the grain fields on the way, they pluck a few heads of grain to have something to eat – something that was allowed under the Law. The problem was, this was the Sabbath, and the Pharisees had rules for that. The Law said to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – do no work. The Pharisees had decided that plucking a head of grain to eat was the same thing as harvesting the whole field would be – it was work. It was “not lawful”. They confronted Jesus.
Jesus used two examples to illustrate the inconsistency and hypocrisy evident in how the Pharisees applied the Law. One was a situation in which one of their heroes clearly broke the Law: the time when David lied to the priest to obtain bread that only the priests were allowed to eat, so that he and his men could eat while on the run from King Saul. The priest, in turn, “bent” the Law, by offering the bread to David. The Pharisees had no criticism of David. The other example he gave was of the Priests, who in doing their priestly duty did do work on the Sabbath – preparing and offering sacrifices in the Temple. That work on the Sabbath, however, was commanded of the priests in the Law, and they were guiltless.
Jesus packs a lot of teaching into the next couple of verses. “There is something greater than the temple here” – if the priests can break the Law without guilt for the sake of the worship in the temple, the disciples could break the rules of the Pharisees for “something greater than the temple” – the Lord himself. He’s the Lord of the Sabbath, and Jesus tells them exactly that. He tells them something else that is greater than their rules – something he told them, or some other Pharisees in Chapter 9 – something he’s been teaching ever since the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5. God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. People are the most important things. How we deal with each other is more important than the rules we follow. Their rules did not equal the Law, but the Pharisees put them ahead of people in need. Jesus declares the disciple guiltless.
In the second scene, they’ve made it to the synagogue, with the Pharisees following along. A man with a withered hand is there. The Pharisees see the man, and what they saw was an advantage… an opportunity… a means to an end: to accuse Jesus. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus sees a person in need, and again confronts their hypocrisy: they’d take care of their livestock that had fallen in a pit (something else commanded in the Law), even on the Sabbath. Jesus tells them clearly what should have been obvious: people are of greater value than animals (and, of course, their rules). Certainly it is lawful to heal a person in need on the Sabbath! He does so, and instead of rejoicing at the great thing that had been done for this man, they “went out and conspired to destroy him”.
Aware of this, Jesus acts with the gentleness that Isaiah prophesied he would have, and withdraws to another place. The Pharisees are there, too, and thus we have the third scene.
Jesus performs another healing, this time of a man who is blind and mute due to a demon. The people are amazed, and are beginning to put two and two together from the power Jesus is displaying – “could this be the Son of David?” – is he the Messiah? The Pharisees have an answer for that. No, he’s the opposite. Yes, they say he shows power – but it’s only by the power of Beelzebul, the Devil himself, that Jesus drives out demons.
Jesus refutes this with three arguments that make clear how ridiculous that statement is and where the real source of power is coming from, and then warns them of the thin ice they’re skating on.
First, a house divided against itself can’t stand. If Satan was the source of power Jesus was using to cast out demons, it would mean that Satan was using his power to defeat himself. That makes no sense. Second, there are other people who the Pharisees are supportive of – their “sons” – that cast out demons; it doesn’t make sense for the Pharisees to say Jesus does this by Beelzebul but not to apply the same accusation to the others. Third, Jesus says, to rob a strong man you have to first tie up the strong man – be more powerful than him and restrain him. Jesus could only be doing this if he had power over Satan. That power would be the Spirit.
That’s where the warnings begin. You can talk bad about me, he says, and that’s forgivable. Talk bad about the Spirit, though, and that’s unforgivable. What you say shows the evil you have in your hearts, and those words will condemn you – your fruit demonstrates that evil. He uses the language of John the Baptist here (“you brood of vipers”), and what he says has to remind the Pharisees of what John challenged them to do: bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
The Pharisees ask him for a “sign” – do something to prove that what you do comes from the Spirit (like he hasn’t already done enough). Jesus doesn’t fall for the bait-and-switch tactic. He denies them a sign, other than a huge one that will come later: he predicts his death, burial, and resurrection to them, comparing himself in the process to Jonah being in the belly of the fish.
I doubt they understood that at all, but it also gives Jesus a great opportunity to tell them that they’re missing out on “something greater”, and the judgement they’re bringing down on themselves. Nineveh heard Jonah’s preaching and repented; that’s better than the Pharisees and “this generation” have done, even though they’re in the presence of something greater than Jonah. The Queen of the South gives another example: she went to great lengths to hear the wisdom of Solomon; now something greater than Solomon is here, and the Pharisees and “this generation” don’t want to listen.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand, great things are happening, good news is being shared with this generation. This generation, however, is like a man who has a demon cast out (a timely illustration with what has just happened) but sits empty and doesn’t fill himself up with something to take the place of the demon. That gives the demon a change to come back with his friends and take over. This generation that rejects Jesus will end up worse off than they were at the first.
The Pharisees thought themselves great men, and most everyone else did too. They had an unfortunate habit of “majoring on minors and minoring on majors”, though. Their concern for their rules, their position, their power, their control, and their image had caused them to miss out on the “something greater”: Jesus, his teaching, mercy and concern for people. That put them at odds with Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The question is whether we, too, miss out on the “something greater”. That’s what we’ve seen all through Matthew: the kingdom heart, the compassion and concern for others, what Jesus lived and taught and wanted for us to be and to have. What gets in our way of seeing that “something greater”? Our concern for the traditions we’ve always followed, the rules we take to be gospel? Our image, our pride, or any of the other things the Pharisees were concerned with? It’s time to choose something greater.
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (v. 35-37)
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (v. 30)
“…whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (v. 50)