Tough Texts Matthew 12: 1-6
There are those who read these two scriptures and make some pretty wild accusations. Some say that Jesus was condoning sin. Others have said that Jesus believed the Law of Moses did not apply to him. There are many who use this text to support what is called “situational ethics”. All of these points are obviously incorrect, as a proper study of the text will show. Jesus never approved of sin, because that would mean that he sinned. The New Testament clearly teaches that He never did (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus also obviously believed the law of Moses applied to him, because He was the only one who ever lived by it perfectly, and by doing so fulfilled it (Gal. 4:1-9, Heb. 9:15-17). But what about the question of “situational ethics”? Is Jesus teaching us in these two texts that it is sometimes acceptable to sin?
Those who support the idea of “situational ethics” use these texts to say it is ok to sin if something good comes out of it (i.e. – the idea that it is justifiable for a poor person to steal food or lie in order to feed his family). In both accounts we see Jesus and His disciples walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. His disciples pluck heads of grain, rub them between their hands, and eat them. Some Pharisees in the area see this and accuse Jesus of letting His disciples violate the Sabbath. Jesus reminds them of how David entered the temple and ate of the showbread, “which was not lawful for him to eat” (Matt. 12:4). Many read this text and claim that Jesus was saying that it was ok for David to eat of the showbread so it must be ok for His disciples to sin by plucking the grain on the Sabbath. But that was not what Jesus was saying at all, and He was definitely not supporting the idea of situational ethics.
We must first consider what Jesus meant by His statement about David. David had truly sinned by what he did. We all know that David was not perfect. Jesus pointed out how they would justify David committing sin for his well being, but not His disciples who also hungered. In 1 Samuel 21:1-7, David had eaten the Bread which was only lawful for priest to eat. The Pharisees would readily justify David (King and prophet) for doing such, but would not allow the disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. One thing most students take for granted in this text is that the Pharisees were right in accusing them of violating the Sabbath. The disciples had not violated any of the laws of Moses. Jesus knew that Deuteronomy 23:25 and Exodus 12:16 gave them the lawful right to pluck the heads of grain. They may have been guilty of violating the Pharisee’s Sabbath tradition, but not the law. Jesus was rebuking them for their hypocrisy and binding of unlawful traditions.
Supporters of situational ethics will claim that Jesus was giving His approval to David when he sinned by eating the shewbread. That is completely opposite of what Jesus was doing. Sin is a transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). David sinned by doing what he did. The Pharisees were hypocritical. Jesus pointed out that priest could work in the temple (profane it) on the Sabbath, but according to their vain traditions a Jew walking in a field on the Sabbath could not pluck a head of grain to feed himself. Jesus used the Pharisee’s own hypocrisy to point out their guilt in not following the law of Moses. These can be tricky texts to understand, and many have differing opinions about them. Spend some time reading all the related scriptures and study for yourself. Let me know what you think. -Ed