Matthew 12:1-8 is what scholars like to refer to as a freighted passage. If you think of a railroad engine pulling a large number of loaded boxcars behind it then you have the picture. It is simply a way of saying that a particular text contains a significant amount of material that needs to be unloaded and examined.
The setting is simple enough. It’s the Sabbath and Jesus and His disciples have been walking “through the grainfields” (v. 1). The disciples picked some grain from the stalks and ate it. It’s no different that what we might do if we were in an orchard or saw some wild berries growing. Cue the Pharisees who accuse the disciples of “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
The Torah certainly forbid work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). It specifically mentioned harvesting (34:21). But what they are doing is hardly either one. After all, if you showed up to work a harvesting job and only picked a handful for yourself you would not only be summarily dismissed, but you would find yourself on the unemployable list. Even the oral tradition of the times, recorded two centuries later in the Mishnah for all of its rigidity and specificity, couldn’t reasonably have been used to indict the disciples. This interpretation of the Pharisees then represented something quite extreme.
That being so, Jesus simply could have dismissed the entire matter by simply saying that their accusation was not based on the word of God but on their ill-founded traditions. He did something like that in Matthew 15. However, He didn’t do that on this occasion. He seemed to regard it as a teachable moment—one where His goal was to get the Pharisees to explore why they understood the Sabbath as something ritualized rather than as the liberating, celebratory occasion of mercy that it was.
Jesus begins by citing two precedents: 1) David and his men eating the bread reserved for the priests (1 Samuel 21:1-6) and 2) the priests working on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10). According to ritual (sacrificial) law, David and his men were not to eat the bread—only the priests could do so (Matthew 12:4). However, the priest at Nob clearly understood the circumstances of David and his men to be extraordinary and acted on the basis of mercy rather than sacrifice. Whatever his question about the consecration of David’s men means (1 Samuel 21:4), this much is clear—he was looking for grounds to show mercy to them! Thus, ritual/sacrifice wasn’t the last word of how the law was to be understood.
The second precedent shows this even more clearly because it is not about a special, extraordinary circumstance, but rather it concerned something built into the system—the priests worked in the temple on the Sabbath! Embedded in Sabbath law (ritual) then was the principle that certain kinds of “work” could take place on that day.
Together, these two precedents formed a compelling rebuttal to the Pharisees. David was a prophet and a king while those serving in the temple were priests. By the mouth of two or three witnesses the law said everything should be confirmed (Deuteronomy 19:15). Jesus had certainly made the case that the Pharisees’ over-ritualized approach to the Sabbath was not rooted in the Torah.
But He wasn’t finished.
He goes on to quote Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 12:7, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” There is inbuilt tension in any system of law. We are not to exceed the speed limit—that’s clear enough. Yet we see emergency vehicles speed by all of the time. Furthermore, you never see a police car trying to chase them down for going over the speed limit. Why? Emergencies take precedence over normal situations. The speed limit is suspended in such situations.
Contextualized, Hosea was not saying that God didn’t desire sacrifice (after all, it was He who gave Israel the sacrificial system). What the words mean is that mercy was and is above sacrifice. In the prophet’s time, Israel couldn’t expect to please God by offering a sacrifice when their heart (and the mercy that should flow from it) was a million miles away from God. In Jesus’ time, it’s clear that the Pharisees’ understanding of Torah was that sacrifice was above mercy.
That leads to the latter part of v. 7, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” But they didn’t know. They didn’t know because in their system sacrifice was higher than mercy. They knew what the Torah said but they didn’t understand what it meant because they didn’t know the One who gave it to them. And because they didn’t know Him, their hearts weren’t right. That’s what Jesus wanted them to see.
This has huge implications for us. It’s hard to understand the Scriptures if we don’t know God and our heart isn’t right. That puts a priority on humbling ourselves before God and hearing His word in light of His character—especially as we see it revealed in Jesus.