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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-50

XII 1-45 Divine Wisdom against Human Sophistication —Four incidents, 1-8; 9-14; 22-37; 38-45, furnish ’our Lord with an opportunity to show his divine wisdom in action against the ’wisdom’ of this world; cf. 11:24-27. They show how simple and kind is the one, how tortuous and ruthless the other.

1-8 First Sabbath Question: the Ears of Corn (Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5)—1-2. To judge by the order of Mk and Lk (Mt uses his vague ’at that time’, cf. 11:25; 14:1) it is shortly after the call of Matthew. Jesus and his disciples take a short Sabbath walk (about half a mile) through the fields. Reaping and threshing were two of the thirty-nine works forbidden on the Sabbath. Later . rabbinic casuistry regarded plucking the cars as reaping, and rubbing between the hands (Lk) as threshing (Edersheim 2, 56, 783). The watchful Pharisees were already of this persuasion.

3-4. Refusing to enter into casuistical discussion Jesus solves the question on the principle that necessity excuses from such ’positive’ law He makes this principle irrefutable for his audience by citing the example of the great David, 1 Kg 21:1-6. From the anger of Saul David had fled to Nob of Benjamin where the Tabernacle then was. Achimelech the high-priest allowed him to cat of the twelve loaves called often ’of the face’ (because placed in God’s presence in the sanctuary) or ’of proposition’ (p??Te+´se??, i.e. ’placed before’; cf.Leviticus 24:5-9). This offering was renewed weekly, the withdrawn loaves being eaten (by reason of their sacred character) by the priests. Yet David’s necessity prevailed over this positive law and the execption had the high-priest’s sanction.

5-6. Our Lordadds (Mt only) that the temple-sacrifice offered on the Sabbath, Leviticus 23:25; Leviticus 24:8-9; Numbers 28:9, is a literal infringement of the sabbath-rest. A remark in. viting the obvious retort: the temple service stands alone and clearly transcends all other duties. But the retort is boldly anticipated: : There is something greater (µe?+????) than the temple here. The presence of Jesus turns the field into a sanctuary. The saying opens up limitless horizons (Lebreton). In conjunction with other sayings (notably John 2:19; cf. Dubarle, RB 48 [ 1939] 21-44) it offers the person of Jesus as the great substitute for the old sanctuary—a substitution already hinted in Messianic. prophecy (e.g.Isaiah 28:7-22; Micah 3:12-; Micah 5:1; Ez 11:16; Daniel 9:23-27; cf. Feuillet, RB 56 [ 1949] 70-5 and notes to Matthew 24:30).

7. (Mt only). The quotation is telling (Os 6:6; cf. on 9: 12-13, where it has been used already). These Pharisees have not penetrated the spirit even of the old Law. Otherwise they would not have allowed their legal scruples to oust prudent and charitable judgement of the guiltless disciples.

8. Why guiltless? Because their master, the Son of Man (§ 690a), is Master (??+´????) of the divinely instituted Sabbath and can dispense at will. ’Taken in the light of the preceding verses this claim to be "Lord of the Sabbath", like so much else in the gospel, cannot adequately be explained by anything short of Christ’s divinity’ (WV).

9-14 Second Sabbath Question: Withered Hand (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11)—On another Sabbath (Lk) in the synagogue (prob. of Capharnaum, cf.Mark 11:21; Mark 3:1) a man with a withered hand was present, probably asking a cure. The scribes and Pharisees (Lk) are there to trap our Lord in act (Mk, Lk) and speech (Mt). In their eyes only danger of death could excuse the administration of extraordinary remedies on the Sabbath (Edersheim 2, 59-60).

11-13. (Mt only). Our Lord’s reply (clear in sense but Semitic in form and awkwardly translated) is not explicitly abstract and final (unlike 8) but primarily practical and deterrent. It halts the Pharisees by making them see their scruples in due perspective. In the case of a beast, their own property, no Sabbath-scruples; in the case of a man, a mere individual to them, a singular delicacy of conscience! Underlying the argument however (and explicitly in Mark 3:4) there is also the principle that a good act is permissible at any time. Our Lord, far from condemning the procedure in favour of a sheep implicitly approves it as a dictate of common prudence. It is a frontal attack upon Sabbath-casuistry, for which in general cf. Edersheim 2, 777-87. On our Lord’s sorrow and anger on this occasion cf.Mark 3:5.

14. For the Pharisees this act of defiance following on the others (cf. 9:44 ff.; 9:11 ff.; 12:2 ff.) was the last straw. Already decided on our Lord’s death they are now concerned only with procedure. This they discuss with the supporters of Antipas (’Herodians’ Mark 3:6, see note).

15-21 The Gentle Messlas (cf.Mark 3:7-12; Luke 6:17-19)—Jesus knew (either naturally or supernaturally) the murderous mind of his enemies; he therefore withdraws to the country districts. When the appointed time came he would deliberately walk into the enemy camp (Matthew 20:17-19; Luke 13:22, Luke 13:33; John 11:16); meanwhile there was work to do; cf. 10:23. He did not intend that he should be ’made known’ as the Messias and popularly so acclaimed. He was no demagogue but the gentle ’Servant of God’ described by Isaias, Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 41:9. In the form of this quotation Mt is influenced partly by the Heb. text, partly by LXX, partly by his own purpose in using it. Thus ’My beloved’ (’my chosen one’, HT, LXX) recalls the beloved son’ of the Baptism; cf. 3:16-17 where the ’spirit’ also appears. He shall not contend’ (’provoke dispute’) is a reasonable adjustment (’shout aloud’, HT, LXX) to fit the withdrawal of our Lord, 15, from unseemly and useless dispute with the Pharisees. The ’Gentiles’ of 21 (lit. ’nations’, ?T?ð as in LXX) replace the ’islands’ (i.e. ’distant lands’). of HT; it is an equivalent but more suitable expression for a Gospel which is to close with the words ’teach all nations’. The general sense of the passage here, as in Isaias, is that the ’Servant of God’ will expound (God’s) integral truth to the nations outside Israel (’shew judgement ’, 18; ’judgement’, ???+´s?? rendering the Heb. mišpa?, a word which here embraces the whole revelation of God to his people, cf. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah, 2, 35 f.).

19. The triumph of this ’Servant’s’ mission will come not by noisy propaganda, 19, nor by harsh measures, 20. On the contrary, he will be tender with the (spiritually) weak and prudent with the souls in which the divine light is flickering out—the ’injured reed’ and the ’smouldering wick’ (DV ’smoking flax’). This is to be his firm policy right to the end when he shall establish God a truth victorious (by his Resurrection?). Thenceforward the whole world will find its hopes in his ’name’—in his Person as revealed by his works and by those who tell of them.

22-24 Exorcism and Pharisaic Calumny (Luke 11:14-15; cf.Mark 3:22.)—22. The miracle is similar to that of 9:32-34 with the added detail (absent from Luke 11:14) that the possessed man was not only dumb but blind. It is possible that Mt returns to the same miracle here (in the context of the condemnation of the Pharisees) to tell of the controversy merely hinted at in 9:34. Alternatively (Prat, 1, 313) 9:32-34 may be an anticipation. It is possible that we have two distinct miracles but this hypothesis would seem to imply that our Lord did not reply to the grave calumny of 9:34. This would be surprising.

23. Among the crowd there are tentative murmurs: Is this man perhaps (µð+´t?—only half-incredulous) the Son of David? (the Messias; cf. 1:1 note). 24. With the Pharisees are scribes from Jerusalem (Mk)—evidently the plot, 14, goes forward and the Jerusalem Sanhedrin is inaction. ’This man’, they say, scornfully echoing the crowd’s phrase, ’is himself possessed by the prince of devils [Mk] who, through him, casts out the minor demons’. The accusation is desperate and (as our Lord will show) absurd. For ’Beelzebub’ cf. 10:25 note.

25-30 Our Lord’s Retort: Significance of his Exorcism (Mark 3:23-27; Luke 11:17-23)—Jesus, supernaturally aware of the Pharisees ’mind, first demonstrates the absurdity, 25-26, and dishonesty, 27, of the charge. He then passes to the positive conclusion to be drawn from his exorcisms 28-29, and throws down a challenge, 30.

25. The general principle is axiomatic: a divided kingdom (as Israel knew to its cost) is devoured piecemeal by its foes; indeed civil dissension in even smaller communities (civic or domestic) is calamitous.

26. The particular and topical application is obvious. The great ’Adversary ’ (ša%%an;cf. 4:10 note) of all goodness is himself no exception. Our Lord appeals implicitly not to a single instance of exorcism (which Satan might* instigate for his own subtle ends) but to repeated examples; cf.e.g. 8:16. If this were a set policy it would be the policy of a fool which Satan is not. Satan, therefore, does not cast out himself (i.e. his satellites)— the paradoxical expression underlines the contradiction in the Pharisaic argument.

27. The argument, moreover, issues from prejudice. The Pharisees were ’the spiritual leaders of the nation at large. Among their disciples, therefore (’children’—a Semitism) were some who at least claimed to enjoy a certain success in exorcism (Jos., Ant. 8, 2, 5; Acts 19:13-14; Mark 9:38). Why did not the Pharisees denounce them? Such exorcists are therefore living witnesses and. (were the question put to them) perforce judges of their own spiritual teachers.

28. Satan excluded, there remains the one alternative—the spiritual power of God. That our Lord freely wields this power, without effort or restriction, is clear proof that he is the founder of a new era—the ’kingdom of God’ (usually ’of the heavens’ in Mt but here used to balance the phrase ’spirit of God’)

29. How can it be otherwise since our Lord is already pillaging Satan’s kingdom? Satan, therefore, must be helpless. He is helpless not because weak or careless but because Jesus, stronger than he, has overcome him just as a robber may overpower a strong and vigilant householder. This victory has already taken place (with the Incarnation?); it remains only to gather the spoils.

30. It is a climax of history, a time for decisions. There are only two possible choices—God or Satan. Our Lord speaks with a calm assurance of dignity which recalls his manner of speech in Jn. He will not accept tolerant neutrality nor. benevolent suspension of judgement. The words are addressed probably to the waverers, hardly to the Pharisees who are clearly his enemies. The ’gathering’ and ’scattering’ metaphor is obscure. It is probably neither agricultural nor pastoral but general: all work is dissipation of energy, when not united with the cause of Jesus.

31-32 Blasphemy of the Spirit (Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10) —The meaning of ’blasphemy of the Spirit’ is to be determined by the context. In the first place, it is blasphemy against (objective genitive) the holy Spirit cf. 32. But, secondly, what precisely is the sin in question? The context (to which 31-32 are closely tied; cf. ’therefore’ in 31 and even more explicitly Mark 3:30) is decisive. The sin referred to is one of which an example has just been furnished by the Pharisees. They have perversely attributed to Satan what is clearly the work of God. This is only one example of conscious, hardened rejection of God’s proffered light—the root-vice of the Pharisces (cf.John 9:41; John 3:19 f.) as of others. This is the direct affront of the Spirit of wisdom; cf.e.g.1 Corinthians 2:10-13. It is the sin’ that remaineth’, John 9:41. Why does it’ remain’? Why is it unforgivable? Of its very nature. Man cannot be saved without the gifts of God, one of which is forgiveness. If these gifts are perseveringly refused nothing can be done. ’It is called "unforgivable" because of its very nature it precludes those things (i.e. the dispositions) which induce forgiveness. However, we cannot thus exclude the power and mercy of God which can find a way of forgiveness . . . by which, as it were miraculously, he heals such sinners’, ST II, 2, 14, a. 3. Even in this hypothesis of a ’quasimiraculous’ grace the sinner is presumed to accept it. At that moment and to that extent he ceases to affront the Spirit; he ceases to be a blasphemer of the Spirit because he has (though tardily) accepted God’s light. Our Lord’s statement is therefore literally true: it shall never be forgiven because it refuses to be forgiven. The ’word against the Son of Man’ is, though grave, forgivable. To assail the human conduct of our Lord (e.g. 9: 11 or even 16:22) is an insult to his compassionate humanity but it proceeds from a misreading of God’s ways. It may presuppose a religious, if indocile, spirit. It finds some excuse in the fact that the Word has taken flesh and is, to that degree, veiled. But an attack upon the Son of Man when manifestly wielding the power of the Spirit is conscious malice—an attack upon the Spirit himself.

33-35 Attack upon Pharisaic Hypocrisy (cf.Luke 6:45) —33. A maxim already used by our Lord, 7:17-20, is now given a different turn. It is a direct assault on the Pharisees; for their blasphemous words, 24, an appeal, in the spirit of 30, for a downright attitude and for clear issues. Nature knows no deception: from good fruit one may argue a healthy tree. Not so the Pharisces. From their customary pious discourses one would not guess at their inward corruption. They are as dangerous, therefore, as a brood of vipers. Let them reform inwardly or at least show their corruption outwardly in speech. The form of 33 is awkward. *Black,148f, suggests the Aramaic original: A good tree makes, i.e. produces, good fruit etc.—the participle for ’makes’ having been read as an imperative. 34. They are an unnatural and repellent phenomenon because words are customarily the ’heart’s overflow’ (KNT) and if the store of the heart is good, the mouth dispenses what is good (35).

36-37 The Idle ’Word (Mt only)—In the present context our Lords words sound a grave warning for the Pharisees. If every casual (a+????+´?, i.e. do-nothing, lazy) word will be accountable for (the text does not necessarily imply ’condemned’), how searching will be the examination of considered pronouncements like the deliberate blasphemy of the Pharisees 1 37 has the ring of a proverb, particularly as thou ’replaces the ’you’ of the previous verse. The words’ are a sure criterion of acquittal (’justification’) or condemnation since, if we except the Pharisaic monstrosity of 34, they are the index of the heart, 34, 35.

38-45 Attack upon Pharisaic Unbelief (Luke 11:29-32) —38. After the rebuff of the Pharisees, 24-34, others continue the conversation (’answered and said’, cf. the Aramaic idiom ’aneh we’amar,i.e. ’spoke up and said’, in which there is no suggestion of answering a question but merely of reacting to certain circumstances or words; e.g.Daniel 2:26). They ask for a convincing proof of our Lord’s Messianic mission—a ’sign’ of their own choosing more startling than the miracles so far witnessed; see 16:1, § 703f.

39. Ignoring the veneer of politeness our Lord directly attacks the questioners as representatives of an evil and ’adulterous’ race, faithless to God, Israel’s spouse; cf.Os 2; Ez 16, etc. A sign will indeed be given but, as a race, they shall reject it; cf. 41.

40. The sign is the Resurrection though the word is not spoken, and the allusion remains cryptic until the event unveils it. If we remember that analogies are not designed to be urged too far, the likeness is striking between the OT presentation of Jonas’s story and our Lords’ burial (though again the term is not used) and Resurrection. As the fish (?ð+´t??, sea-beast KNT) swallows Jonas so the earth shall swallow-up the Son of Man. The disappearance is’ for three days and three nights’ in each case. In Jonah 1:17 this phrase may or may. not indicate 72, hours; Heb. usage makes the expression ambiguous (cf.e.g.Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1 and the Jewish method of reckoning part of a day, month or year for the whole; SB 1, 649). In our Lord’s case it certainly does not indicate 72 hours as the evangelist, though faithfully recording the expression, well knew, 16:21; 17:23; 20:19. In any case, the general analogy is enough and this point should be remembered also when it is objected that Jonas was body and soul in the fish and our Lord’s body only in the tomb or when it is urged that ’the heart of the earth’ is as deep in the earth (and therefore Limbo?) as the ’belly’ is in the fish.

41. The example of the Ninevites will rise accusing at the final reckoning. (It is possible, however, that the words ’in judgement’ have been added by the Greek translator; the original Aramaic would then read simply ’shall rise with this generation i.e. in the Aramaic idiom ’dispute with, reproach Black, 97.) It will put the incredulous Pharisees to shame—their missionary was not a mere prophet but the Son of Man himself.

42. Cf.1 Kg 10:1 ff. This fresh contrast is of another order: it suggests not the impenitence of the Pharisees; but their refusal to recognize the true wisdom offered them. The queen of Sheba (in SW. Arabia, called the Yemen, i.e. ’the south’) travelled far to hear one whose wisdom, though proverbial in Israel, did not compare with this.

43-45 Hypocritical and Cynical Pharisees warned of their Danger (Luke 11:24-26)—By means of a comparison suggested by the present exorcism incident, 22-24, Jesus warns his opponents against a false sense of security. There is peril in over-confidence—in the calm assurance of the Pharisees conscious of Israel’s privileged status, unconscious of spiritual need. They cannot afford to refuse the help of Jesus who alone opposes Satan with the Spirit of God, 28-29.

43. The unclean spirit (’unclean’ as opposed to the ’holy’ Spirit) appears as a tenant not necessarily evicted but perhaps simply seeking a change of residence.

44. He finds the waterless countryside unsuitable and decides to return to his old home. To his delight it is still untenanted (s???a+´???ta), cleaned and decorated (?e??sµe+´???). 45. Anxious to share his good fortune (there is no suggestion of gathering ’forces for a battle) he invites a whole band (’seven’—the number of completion) of like-minded spirits. Packed with this unclean horde the house is made dirtier than ever. Applied to this ’wicked generation’ the comparison invites it to consider the possibility that the Godfavoured house of Israel may, through sheer indifference, be open—with vacant possession—to Satan. Such indifference will make the state of Israel more desperate (though not yet hopeless) than its condition was before God’s call of Abraham. The unprivileged pagans will be in better case.

46-50 True Kindred of Christ (Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21—46. The episode has no obvious logical connexion with the rest of the section nor is it clear that it took place at this time: Mt’s apparently precise indication (’as he was yet speaking’) is, in reality, his own vague connecting formula, 9:18; 17:5; 26:47. Mt, who is primarily interested in our Lord’s pronouncement, 48-49, does not say why his ’brethren’ sought him (see Mark 3:21 where the ’friends’ are probably relations, i.e. ’brethren’; cf.Mark 3:31-32). Of this passage Lagrange pointedly remarks: ’The presence of our Lord’s mother on this occasion no more roves that she shares the sentiments of the others than oes her presence at the foot of the Cross’. She is there simply because she wants to be near him.

47-48. The house (cf. 13:1) is full, Mark 3:20. Mary and the ’brethren’ are outside. Our Lord is informed. (47 is unnecessary and absent from MSS B & S and from the early Syr. versions. It is excluded, probably rightly, by Hort and von Soden) Our Lord takes up the words of his informant to drive home a lesson.

49-50. With a gesture and a word he sets the example of complete detachment (enjoined on his followers in 10:37) in the interests of the Father. He acknowledges no kinship, but with those who are obedient and therefore genuine children of the one Father. His mother was dear to him for the same reason, Luke 1:38. For such he uses the nearest and dearest terms—brother, sister, mother—but ’father’ is reserved for his Father in heaven. The terms ’brother’ and ’sister’ in 12:50 do not necessarily define the word ’brethren’ of 12:46f. which (cf.Mark 3:32; Mark 6:3) is actually to be understood of ’relations’ in general. To indicate relationship of affection our Lord was restricted to the terms’ brother’, ’sister’ because the terms of more distant relationship (’cousin’, ’aunt’, etc.) would be absurd used in a figtirative sense.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 12". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-12.html. 1951.
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