Today’s Lent reflection is on Matthew 12:1-13 (NIV):
1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
11 He 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? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.
I chose this passage because God has been saying “I want mercy, not sacrifice” quite a lot to me lately, and I always find it a powerful reminder of who God is, and what choices I can make with God. But there is a lot to explore in all the text before and after this – Jesus participates in a longstanding debate here between two opposing ways of interpreting the law: he criticises those who are trying to “condemn the innocent” with the ‘letter of the law’, a literal interpretation, which is able to exploit loopholes and technicalities but which is not willing to relent in the face of human need or suffering. When Pharisees try to catch Jesus breaking the law from this literal perspective, he responds by demonstrating a different approach – he teaches the ‘spirit of the law’, the intent of the law. This is what Jesus teaches when he says the greatest commandments are to love God above all things and to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:29-31) – love for God and neighbour is the underlying purpose of all God’s laws. This is why, when Jesus seems to break the law, he does not abolish but fulfils it (Matthew 5:17).
In Jesus’ life and teaching, the law comes alive again in the Spirit and is returned to its intended purpose – Jesus rights the interpretation of the law where it has been used against those it is meant to serve. He re-establishes the priority of human need over the letter of the law.
In the two instances described in this passage, this means that if the law stands between someone who is hungry and available food, it is the hunger that takes precedence over the rules that forbid reaping grain on the Sabbath. If the law stands between a man's sickness and his healing, it is the need of this human being that matters more than the law.
This is the spirit of the law, this is the will of God. God wants mercy, not sacrifice.
God choosing to respond with mercy to human need honours the value of each human being – we are all precious to God, and loved. It is God's fundamental desire to do us good, to move us towards the fullness of our lives. Goodness and love will follow us all the days of our lives…
Both the disciples and the man with the shrivelled hand have already absorbed this astonishing good news, and they boldly claim it for themselves. In the midst of a crowd, in the temple, and on the Sabbath, a man stretches out his hand to Jesus, believing that he can be healed and that the Sabbath is a perfectly acceptable day for this to happen. What a powerful gesture this is! He becomes central part of a heated debate about the letter versus the spirit of the law – and he claims, with Jesus, the spirit of the law for himself, believing that his needs and wishes are more important to God than strict adherence to merciless rules.
He chooses not to sacrifice his chance at wholeness for the sake of having adhered to the letter of the law which he must have been taught all his life.
It is an act of faith, faith in Jesus’ power to heal and authority to do so on the Sabbath, and faith in his own worth, trusting the God whose joy it is to love us.
Many of us in DC might feel like we have become the bone of contention in our families or parishes or the church as a whole. In the midst of all the arguments, not matter how violently the ‘letters of the law’ may be thrown about, there’s Jesus saying, Stretch out your hand, ask for what you need, because the time for healing is now.
I pray that we all experience the God of mercy in our lives, in a gentle whisper or a bold gesture, in everyday moments and once in a lifetime experiences, in the midst of arguments that concern our lives and our happiness and in which we may not always feel like we have words to speak for ourselves. God is right there with us, and whatever may be going on around us, I pray that we all feel assured of the kindness and tenderness and mercy that is ours to claim.