Bible: Conflict over the Law’s meaning

June 3 — Matthew 12:1-14; June 10 — Matthew 13:24-33

May 21, 2018 by

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This quarter we look at the justice of God, primarily in the message of Jesus with a bit of Paul.

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

The Gospel of Matthew, more than the other three Gopels, tells us about conflicts Jesus faced with religious leaders, especially the Pharisees. What was at stake in those two-sided conflicts with their mutual antipathy? One issue was that each side understood the Law in different ways. This is illustrated by the story in Matt. 12:1-14.

Jesus and his closest disciples lived hand-to-mouth. They depended upon others’ generosity and the occasional opportunity to find nourishment in the land. This day, a Saturday, they found some grain and stopped to enjoy a snack. We aren’t told what kind of grain could be eaten raw in the field — possibly sweet corn?

Some Pharisees observed this and confronted Jesus. In their view, the disciples violated the Sabbath by working when they should be taking a day of rest. The Pharisees were not simply nitpicking. They raised a crucial philosophical issue — the meaning of the Law, of justice.

What matters most — a public witness of loyalty to Sabbath observance, or priority on finding nourishment for hungry people?

We tend too quickly to dismiss the Pharisees as narrow-minded legalists. They had a deep concern for sustaining the identity of God’s people in the face of the Roman Empire’s occupation of the Jewish homeland, an occupation that threatened the viability of the Jewish people. Faithfulness to the Law seemed to them the best way to resist.

Jesus shared many of these concerns. But his understanding of public witness placed the highest priority on caring for human needs. Hungry people need to be fed. In the next incident, he showed that “doing good” (in this case, healing a man with a withered hand) is also an important Sabbath day activity. Rules should never take priority over meeting human needs.

The Law, the meaning of justice, for Jesus may be summarized by two statements: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (12:7) and “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” (12:12).

Matthew 13 records some enigmatic parables. The three in verses 24-33 — the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed and the yeast — have to do with growing things, illustrating the way God works in the world.

Jesus, in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, is at work making present the kingdom of God. He enlists a group of followers to join him in this task. This is serious work.

We who read the stories know that Jesus is training people to carry on after his shockingly immanent death. What lessons might be learned from these particular parables for the sustenance of his followers’ calling?

The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they yield their fruit only after some struggle to discern their meanings. The meanings are not always clear and straightforward. Let us reason together!

I can suggest a couple of things. The growth of the kingdom of heaven is complicated, subtle and surprising. The parable of the weeds among the wheat warns us not to be preoccupied with purity and certainty, but, we could say, to trust in the process. What matters most is helping the “wheat” to grow, even if that means being patient with the presence of “weeds” along the way.

Mysterious as the processes of growth might be (as with mustard shrubs and leavened bread), growth there will be — perhaps beyond all expectations.

Linking these two passages together, let me suggest one lesson for the dynamics of growth: What matters most is mercy, treating humans as unsurpassingly important and worthy of high regard. Learning this lesson will lead to growth toward genuine justice, the only growth that matters.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.


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