It is hard for us to understand just how important the oral law was to the Pharisees but understanding how entwined it was with their history helps. Their particular sect began at the time of Ezra and is attributed to those who not only copied the Law but attempted to keep the proper understanding of it in place as well. They did so in the same way a history teacher attempts to pass on information to his students so that they not only know what happened on July 4, 1776, for example, but they understand what significance it has today and how to uphold it. The teacher may say, “If you truly want your government to remain one that is “for the people”, you have to know what the different candidates stand for and vote for the one who you think best upholds the Constitution.” However, over time, the Pharisees mistakenly came to believe that their interpretation of the Torah was the ONLY interpretation of the Torah, and they developed their own list of definitions and practice so that the masses would know the proper way to live for and worship Yahweh. The historian Josephus noted, “The Pharisees have imposed upon the people many laws taken from the tradition of the fathers, which are not written in the Law of Moses.”
And it was on that point that they came in conflict with Jesus and the Sabbath. In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees confront Jesus on two issues concerning the Sabbath. The first was in regard to Jesus’ disciples and some grain they picked and ate while passing through a field. The Pharisees had determined that plucking grain, rolling it through the fingers to release the kernel and eating it was a form of reaping which was considered work, although Dt. 23:25 only mentions not taking a sickle to your neighbor’s grain with no mention of the day. Jesus responds to His accusers with 2 examples of Scripture where the Law is “broken” but Scripture is silent on judging those who broke it- David who ate consecrated bread (1 Sam. 21:1-6) and the priests conducting sacrifices in the Temple (Ex. 25:30; Lev. 24:5-9). “If the Lord is silent on these issues, then why are you judging my disciples?” Jesus asks. He finishes His response by identifying Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath and as such His interpretation of what one can or cannot do on the Sabbath is superior to theirs.
The second attempt to discredit Jesus involves healing on the Sabbath. This time Jesus does not quote Scripture but argues from the very oral tradition His accusers say He is breaking. In a beautifully Pharisaic tradition Jesus points out that if their oral tradition allowed a person to help a sheep who’d fallen into a pit out of that pit on the Sabbath, how much more merciful is it to help a man on the Sabbath. Matthew has deftly joined the two confrontations together with the precept presented in v. 7 which is actually is a quote of Hos. 6:6. Mercy is the underlying girder that builds the house of faith. It should be the determining factor not only of what we do on the Sabbath but every day of the week.
How often do we judge others in a Pharisaic way? In one way or another we all have a tendency to tilt toward legalism- or at least our own form of it. That does not mean we should condone or allow blatant sin if the Bible clearly states that what another is doing is wrong. But criticism, self-righteousness, or ostracizing someone until they “get their act together” is not in line with Jesus’ teaching and it’s best we remember the old adage, “There but for the grace of God, go I” before we set out to set them straight (Gal. 6:1-2).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com/, https://www.linked.com/in/annhlefevre/, https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre/