The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 12:1-12

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 16, 2014

Matt 12:1 AT that time Jesus went through the corn on the sabbath: and his disciples being hungry, began to pluck the ears, and to eat.

“At that time.” This form of words is frequently found in the Gospels, to refer, in merely a general way, to the period of our Redeemer’s preaching and public mission, without specifying any particular time, or marking out any connected order of events. From Mark (2) and Luke (6) it seems quite clear, that the events recorded here by St. Matthew, occurred before the mission of the Apostles (10).

“Went through the corn,” that is, the corn-fields, where the corn was ripe for the sickle.

“On the Sabbath.” The word, “Sabbath,” literally means, rest, in allusion to the rest of God, after perfecting the works of creation. (Heb. 4) It commonly denotes the seventh day, specially appointed, in the Jewish law, to be kept holy, and free from servile works of any kind (Exod. 35:3). It also was intended to denote all feasts among the Jews, and was employed, too, to designate the entire week. Hence, the words, first, second, third, &c., days of the Sabbath.

Here, the word would seem to be taken in its strict signification, as denoting the seventh day of the week, which, by a perpetual law, whether from creation, or, at least, from the time of Moses, was appointed to be kept “holy.” That it refers not to the great festivals, or the days of the week, seems very probable, from the fact, that it was allowed, on these festival days, to prepare meat, &c.; and, hence, the Pharisees would have no ground for accusing our Redeemer’s disciples, which, with all their malice, they would hardly do, if the letter of the law was not infringed upon; and, although our Redeemer’s reply does not expressly admit, that the letter of the Jewish law was violated by His disciples.—He does not openly say, that pulling of ears of corn was a servile work,—still, it indicates that His disciples did what was justified only by the necessity of the case. It was only on the Sabbath, strictly so called, such mode of acting was unlawful.

St. Luke (6:1), terms it, “the second first Sabbath.” What this “second first” means is much disputed. Some understand by it, a Sabbath on which another great festival had fallen, or with which such a festival concurred. So that it was doubly solemn—doubly a day of rest. “Secundo,” i.e., bis primum (St. Chrysostom). And, as it was a time when the ears of corn were ripe, it must be either the Pasch, or its seventh day (for, the seventh day of the Pasch was a solemn festival), or Pentecost. According to some, it was at the Paschal time; for, then the sheaf of first fruits was usually presented (Lev. 23:10). And at the Feast of Pentecost, that is, full seven weeks after the Pasch (Lev. 23:15), they were to offer two loaves of the first fruits (Lev. 23:17). Hence, it must fall on either Pasch or Pentecost; for, with these only could the season of ripe corn correspond. The feasts of new moons were only festivals in the temple, but not of obligation among the people.

Others say, that the word, “second first” (δευτεροπρώτῳ—secundo-primo), means, the Sabbath that concurred with the Feast of Pentecost, or fell within the week of Pentecost, which had no octave, like the Pasch (which had seven days), or the Feast of Tabernacles (which had eight days), and it was called “second first” or first, in the second place; because, the Sabbath that fell within the week of the Pasch, was first first, or πρωτοπρωτον, or, absolutely, the first of all the great Sabbaths of the year. Hence, St. John says of it, “it was a great Sabbath day” (John 19:31). So that as the Pasch was the greatest of all festivals, the Sabbath that fell within the Pasch was the greatest, or first first, Sabbath; and as Pentecost was the second greatest festival, so the Sabbath that fell within it was next in dignity to the Sabbath within the Pasch. Hence, “second first.” The three great festivals were termed, πρωτα, or first. Pasch had the πρωτοπρωτον, the first first Sabbath, by excellence. Pentecost, δευτεροπρωτον, the second first. Tabernacles, the third, τριτοπρωτον. Others, by second first, understand the octave day of the festival having an octave, which, it was commanded, should be celebrated with solemnity equal to that of the feast itself (Lev. 23; Num. 29:35).

“Sabbath.” St. Mark (2:23), has the plural, and so has the Greek here, τοις σαββατοις, on the Sabbaths, which, by a Hebrew idiom, is used for the singular, and means, on one of the Sabbath days.

“And His disciples being hungry.” Very likely, owing to the concourse of the multitude, they forgot to make any provision for their corporal wants.

“Began to pluck the ears,” &c. St. Luke says (6:1), “they rubbed the ears in their hands.” It was allowed the Jews to do this, when passing through their neighbour’s field (Deut. 23:25). This whole passage indicates the austere and mortified life led by our Redeemer and His disciples, who were content with the simplest fare, with what came next to hand, sometimes suffering the pangs of hunger, poor, without scrip or staff. It contains a clear refutation of the implied charge, made against our Lord and His disciples, on the subject of not fasting (9:14; Luke 5:33). Hence, the occurrence recorded here, is narrated by St. Mark (2:23), after the charge referred to.

Matt 12:2 And the Pharisees seeing them, said to him: Behold thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath days.

The Pharisees do not make it a charge, or subject of accusation, against our Lord’s disciples, that they plucked the ears of corn, or were guilty, in any way, of theft. Their charge is confined to the violation of the Sabbath, as if this was a servile work, included in the prohibition of the law.

“Said to Him.” St. Luke, “said to them.” Probably, they charged both Him and them; or, it may be said, that in reproaching our Redeemer with the act of His disciples, they charged Him, at the same time. It was not for walking on the Sabbath, they reproached them. A walk to a certain distance was allowed on the Sabbath. The law permitted “a Sabbath-day’s journey.”

Matt 12:3 But he said to them: Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and they that were with him:

Our Redeemer adduces several reasons to exculpate, or justify, the conduct of His disciples; the first is, the plea of necessity. A law of a higher order, and of more binding force, the law of Nature, which prompted them to sustain life and appease the pangs of hunger, predominated over the positive enactment regarding the abstention from servile work on the Sabbath. He quotes the conduct of David—a man according to God’s own heart—which had the sanction and approval of the high priest at the time, as a case in point.

“Have you not read,” in which He reproaches them with their ignorance of the Sacred Scriptures, their knowledge of which they made a subject of boasting.

“What David did.” (See 1 Kings 21:1–6)

“And they that were with him.” From the passage referred to (v. 1), it would seem David was alone. “Why art thou alone,” says Achimelech, “and no one with thee?” The answer is, that David was alone when he went to Achimelech (“and no one with thee”); but that he brought the holy bread to his attendants, whom “he appointed to such and such a place” (21:2).

Matt 12:4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the loaves of proposition, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for them that were with him, but for the priests only?

“How he entered into the house of God.” This was at Nobe. It does not mean the temple which was not then built, but the place, or hall, contiguous to the Tabernacle, which was kept at Nobe, a sacerdotal city (1 Sam 22:19). The ark was not there; it was kept at Silo. St. Mark 2:26 says, this occurred “under Abiathar the high priest.” In the 1 Sam 21:1, Achimelech is said to be the high priest in question. Some expositors, with St. Chrysostom (Hom. 40, in Mattheum), Theophylact, Jansenius, &c., undertake to reconcile both accounts by saying, that Achimelech, the father, and Abiathar, his son, had each the two names. So that each was called Achimelech and Abiathar. For (2 Sam 8:17), it is said, that when David mounted the throne, Achimelech, the son of Abiathar, was high priest with Sadoc, the son of Achitob. Now, by Abiathar here, is meant he who is called Achimelech (1 Sam 21:1). For, Achimelech, the father, was slain by Saul (1 Sam 22:18); and his son, Abiathar, was high priest during the whole of David’s reign, and during a part of Solomon’s. Hence, by Achimelech, is meant Abiathar; and so, both had the two names in common.

Others, with Venerable Bede, Cajetan, &c., say, Abiathar was present and sanctioned the act; and, so made it his own. Likely, he was associated with his father in the priestly functions, which old age prevented him from fully exercising.

Others say, the words, “under Abiathar,” should be rendered, “in the chapter called Abiathar;” because, the Jews divided the SS. Scriptures into parts, and called the parts from the principal person spoken of in them. Thus, “in Elias” (Rom. 11:2), means, the part called “Elias.”

“And did eat the loaves of proposition,” called in Hebrew, “bread of the face,” because placed in the Holy, in the Tabernacle, six on each side, before the face or throne of God, which was in Holy of Holies. These breads, corresponding in number with the twelve tribes of Israel, served as a constant memorial, and perpetual recognition, on the part of the Jewish people, that they were continually fed and supported by the Lord.

“Nor for them that were with him.” David, although a king and a prophet—and as such entitled to extraordinary privileges—had no privilege whatever, any more than his attendants had, to partake of this holy bread. The privilege of partaking of it was exclusively reserved for the priests.

The argument from David’s case is very strong. First, not only did David himself partake of these breads, but so did also his followers; and the high priest had no scruple in giving them, under the circumstances of necessity. Secondly, there seems to be greater deordination for laics in partaking of holy bread, which priests alone were allowed to eat, than in working on the Sabbath; and if necessity justified, or excused, the former, how much more the latter.

Matt 12:5 Or have ye not read in the law, that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple break the sabbath, and are without blame?

He adduces another, and still clearer, example, to show that His disciples did not act unlawfully, as was alleged.

“Read in the law,” of Moses. (The fact of David might be referred to the Prophets.)

“That on the Sabbath-days, the priests,” &c. This is not expressly said in the law; but, it is substantially contained in several parts of it, v.g., Numbers (28) and elsewhere, where the rite of sacrificing, which necessarily involves great servile labour, in slaying, burning, offering the victims, is sanctioned.

“How that on the Sabbath-days the priests,” &c. Every word is expressive—the time, “Sabbath-days;” the place, “in the temple;” the persons, of all others, who should be most observant, “the priests.”

“Break,” a stronger phrase than, observe not. They did so materially; but, still, they acted, according to the precepts of the law.

“And are without blame.” The law itself allowed, in this case, this apparent departure from its general enactments. The act of sacrificing, &c., was, per se, a servile act. But it was allowed by the law; otherwise, it would be against the general provisions of the law of Moses.

Matt 12:6 But I tell you that there is here a greater than the temple.

They might object, and say: You are no priest; nor is the work done for the service of the temple. He replies, and shows how the alleged example of Sabbath breaking in the temple applies in the present case. If the sanctity of the temple excused those who laboured in its service, how much more will ministering to, and waiting upon, the Lord of the temple, excuse those who are employed in this meritorious office. If the service of the temple justified the priests in violating the letter of the law, how much more can I, who am still greater than the temple, nay, the Lord of the temple, to serve whom is still more meritorious, dispense My disciples from the Sabbatical law, while attending on Me. In this unavoidable attendance on Him, His disciples were excused as much, by so doing, as were the priests of the Old Law, in sacrificing, owing to their unavoidable attendance at the temple, on the Sabbath. This is an argumentum a minori ad majus (argument from the minor to the major). The law relating to the observance of the Sabbath, admits of the interpretation, or rather limitation, that it does not extend to the labours of the temple. For, the priests in the temple perform works which, in se, and looking to the mere letter of the law, would seem to be a violation of the Sabbath. And, still, they are excused; because, they perform works prescribed by the Legislator Himself on the Sabbath. How much more ought My disciples be blameless, when, merely plucking a few ears of corn, to appease hunger, while ministering to Me, who am Lord of the temple.

Matt 12:7 And if you knew what this meaneth: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent.

Another reason to excuse His disciples. If the Pharisees properly understood the words of God, quoted by the Prophet Hosea 6:6, I prefer mercy, i.e., the exercise of humanity, and benevolence, and charity towards the poor, to sacrifice, and all other external observances, they would not have condemned the disciples, when in the exercise of mercy to the souls of their brethren, whom they wished to rescue from eternal perdition, they did what seemed to be a mere material violation of the letter of the law. Or, “mercy,” might contain an allusion to the conduct of the Pharisees, who, devoid of all feelings of humanity and benevolence, were accusing the disciples, out of excessive zeal for the law. They were preferring sacrifice to mercy, which they failed to exercise. If the disciples, while suffering from hunger, were prevented from plucking a few ears of corn to appease hunger, this would be against charity and mercy; and if they gave over the sacred ministry, in obedience to ceremonial precepts, they would be preferring sacrifice to mercy. Had the Pharisees attended to this, they “would never have condemned the innocent” disciples.

Matt 12:8 For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath.

“For the Son of man,” &c. This is the final reason adduced to justify the disciples. They were dispensed by Himself, who, as Man God, “was Lord even of the Sabbath,” and could dispense with its observance; or, could command it to be observed in what way soever He pleased.

“Even of the Sabbath,” that is, of the Sabbath, as well as of everything else. “Even,” is rejected by several MSS. The particle, “for,” shows this to be an additional reason to prove the innocence of the disciples; because, they were dispensed by legitimate authority—viz., by Himself, “the Son of man,” His peculiar designation in the New Testament.

St. Mark (2:27), adduces an additional reason: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath rest was instituted for man’s benefit and advantage, in order that he would be free, and obtain a respite from bodily labour, and might thus be at leisure to attend to God’s worship, and meditate on His heavenly law and benefits, “and not man for the Sabbath.” So that if man’s corporal or spiritual necessity or utility required it, man would be free to dispense with the Sabbath observances and obligations. In a word, man’s benefit, his life, his salvation, and whatever serves to forward both, being the end for which the Sabbatical rest was instituted, are, therefore, superior to it. Hence, whenever the end or object of the Sabbatical ordinances becomes incompatible with the observance of the Sabbath, or Sabbatical observances become injurious to man’s corporal or spiritual interests, these latter, as being more important, are to be consulted for in preference. St. Mark seems to make this (5:8) an inference from the foregoing, “THEREFORE, the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” St. Luke (6:5), records them, as does St. Matthew here without making them an inference: “And he said to them: The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.”

Our Redeemer having, in four ways, excused His disciples, assigns four causes for transgressing a law. 1. Its opposition to the law of nature. 2. Its opposition to another particular and superior law. 3. Its opposition to humanity and love of our neighbour. 4. A dispensation from it by legitimate authority. (Jansenius Gandav.)


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