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Tuesday, July 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Discussions with the Pharisees (12:1-50)

The evangelist has grouped here a series of events in the course of which the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is shown to be more and more insoluble, to the point where the Pharisees plot to kill him (vs. 14). They accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-15), and of being an instrument of the Devil (Matthew 12:22-37); they demand from him a convincing miracle (Matthew 12:38-45). They clearly are calling in question his Messianic claims. Matthew introduces into these stories a quotation from Isaiah which throws light on their meaning.

Verses 1-21

The Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath. (12:1-21; see Mark 2:23 3:6)

The first cause of conflict seems to us to be very innocent. The disciples of Jesus, being hungry, pluck some grains of wheat. That for which they are reproached is not the plucking of the grains of wheat (for which they would probably be reproached today!) but the doing of it on the Sabbath. For such an act was considered "work." It must be remembered with what strictness the Sabbath was observed in Judaism. The Sabbath law was sacred among all. During the Maccabean period there were Jews who permitted themselves to be massacred without defense rather than violate the Sabbath (1 Maccabees 2:31-38). Hunger, therefore, could not justify such a violation such was the argument of the Pharisees. Jesus replied with two scriptural arguments, the one taken from the life of David (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6), the other from the law concerning the sacrifices offered in the Temple on the Sabbath (see Numbers 28:9-10). His reply had meaning only if in his Person there was one present who was greater than David and greater than the Temple (vs. 6). The term "Son of man" must be understood in its Messianic sense: Jesus is the Son of David, the sovereign Judge who inaugurates the end-time. He is, therefore, Lord of the Sabbath.

But in acting as he did, he is faithful to the spirit of the Old Covenant. He fulfilled the word which God had spoken by the mouth of Hosea: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). What is piety without love?

The episode that follows turns on a healing done by Jesus on the Sabbath. This theme is frequently taken up in the Gospels (see Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-16; John 9:1-14). For Jesus each healing is a victory of God over Satan, a sign announcing the coming Kingdom, the great final rest that rest of God which it was the precise mission of the Sabbath to recall and to announce (Genesis 2:1-3; compare Hebrews 4:3-10). Is it not the day par excellence on which it is legitimate "to do good"? (vs. 12). To these Pharisees who were so anxious to keep the letter of the Law Jesus replies, perhaps not without a barb of irony, that when one of their sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath they do not hesitate to pull it out. Is not a man of much more worth? (see Luke 14:1-6). Jesus is scandalized and grieved by the hardness of their hearts (see Mark 3:5).

We could be astonished that a simple healing could provoke the anger of the Pharisees to the point where they plot the death of Jesus from that moment (Matthew 12:14; see Mark 3:6; Luke 6:11; John 5:16). But it must be understood that Jesus put their whole theology even more, their whole authority in question. Given the ascendancy of Jesus over the crowds and the sovereignty which proceeds from his words and his acts, if he is not the Messiah he is an impostor, a blasphemer. And it is indeed this last question which the following stories raise.

Matthew prepares us, as he has done several times before, by inserting into the text a sort of confession of faith (vss. 15-21). Yes, Jesus is indeed the Anointed of God, the Messiah announced by the prophets. But what he is must as yet remain secret (vs. 16). He comes, according to the ancient prophecy (see Isaiah 42:1-4), under the form of a Servant. The Spirit of God rests on him. He will not fail until he has made justice triumph on the earth. He is the hope of the nations. But he comes without pomp. He flees noisy manifestations. He is merciful. He does not break the bruised reed. He does not extinguish the wick which still smokes. It is to the "little people," those defeated by life, that his solicitude is directed.

Thus little by little there emerges before us the figure of the King who comes under the form of the suffering and unrecognized Servant. He gives life to others only by offering up his own (see Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12).

Verses 22-37

The Blind and Dumb Demoniac (12:22-37; see Mark 3:20-30)

This passage poses the decisive question: Who is Jesus? The crowds ask: Can this man who is so powerful over demons be the Son of David that is, the Messiah? Who else could do such miracles? That which is not within the power of man is within the power of God or of demons. For the characteristic of demons is to imitate the work of God. Thus the reply of the Pharisees is to be expected: "It is only by Be-elzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons."

Jesus combats them on their own ground by showing that their reasoning is fallacious and illogical. Would Satan destroy his own work? He is certainly too intelligent to do that! A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. It is the logic of evil that its works cany the mark of their author. But whose imprint do the deliverances wrought by Jesus carry? If their origin is in Satan, from what source are the healings wrought by the disciples of the Pharisees? Does not their accusation turn on them? Hence, it is by their "sons" that the accusers will be judged.

But if, on the contrary, it is by the Spirit of God that Jesus has power to cast out demons, this signifies that the Kingdom of God has made an irruption into the world. It signifies, in other terms, that the hour of God has sounded, that the Messianic dawn has appeared, that the Kingdom is already here in the Person of Jesus.

The parable of the Strong Man expresses the fact that only he who has bound "the strong man" in this case, Satan is prepared to become master of his house. This is the meaning of the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus can deliver men from the power of Satan because Satan has no power over him. Jesus has confronted him and conquered (see John 14:30).

The stake in the battle is such that no one may remain neutral; it is necessary to be on the one side or the other (vs. 30) . He who does not acknowledge Jesus as the One sent from God is already against him. He has come to proclaim and accomplish the great final gathering together of the children of God. Those who do not unite with him contribute to the scattering of God’s children, for the art of Satan is to separate and destroy. Once more the image is that of a flock, of a shepherd who collects his sheep from the wolves who have scattered them (Ezekiel 34:2-6; Ezekiel 34:11-16; compare Matthew 7:15; Matthew 9:36; John 10:11-12).

Jesus put his questioners on guard against the only sin which is without forgiveness the sin against the Holy Spirit (vss. 31-32). He affirms that all sins and blasphemies may be pardoned, save this one. What is the sin against the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the Presence of God in us the testimony of himself which God makes in the deepest level of our inner selves. Woe to the one who knowingly and willfully resists this summons, this Holy Presence. It is the voice of God which he refuses or denies and thus reduces to silence. He, so to speak, kills the Presence of God in him (see Hebrews 6:4-6). Jesus recognizes that one may speak against him out of ignorance, and this sin may be pardoned (see Acts 3:17). The way of repentance and faith remains open. And if the sin against the Holy Spirit is not pardoned "either in this age or in the age to come," the opposite is true also there is hope "in this age" and "in the age to come" for those who will not have been acquainted with or recognized the Son of Man here below.

Jesus does not say that his questioners have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, but he warns them with an exceptional gravity that they could be on the way to doing so. Verses 33-34 state his thought precisely. The lack of sincerity on the part of his accusers arises from the fact that they could not condemn his act the healing of the demoniac yet they still declared that this act is the good fruit of a bad tree. But the fruit reveals the nature of the tree (see 7:16-20; Luke 6:43-44). The Pharisees’ words have revealed an evil heart within. They do not seek the truth; they seek only to dishonor him. Their speech is loaded with deadly poison ("brood of vipers!"; compare 3:7; 23:29-33). "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (vs. 34) . Thus our words reveal the bedrock of our being good or bad.

It is to be noted here that Jesus recognized that there are some "good" men and some "evil" men; not, certainly, in the absolute sense, for he well knows that God alone is "good" (Mark 10:18; Matthew 19:17), but in a relative sense. There are for Jesus some "just" men whose hearts are right and humble before God, and there are "unjust" men. And it is especially in their words that this justice or this injustice reveals itself. Jesus puts us sternly on guard against the spirit of condemnation, against "careless" words, for it is by them that God will judge us (vss. 36-37; compare Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:12-13; James 3:1-12).

Verses 38-45

The Pharisees Demand Signs (12:38-45)

What the Pharisees ask is a "sign" which will prove that Jesus is truly the Messiah some sensational miracle of the sort from which Jesus had forever turned away at the Temptation (Matthew 4:5-7; Matthew 16:1). They want God to manifest himself. Jesus sees in this request only an evidence of the unbelief and wickedness of those who surround him. The term "adulterous" describes the infidelity of Israel; it is a classic term from the Old Testament which compares the love of God for the Elect People to the love of a fiancé or a husband (see Jeremiah 2:1-5; Jeremiah 2:32; Hosea 2:16-23; Ezekiel 16). Those who reject this love will not know how to recognize God when he comes to them; Jesus will give them no other sign than "the sign of the prophet Jonah" (compare Luke 11:29-32).

This saying is mysterious. Luke’s account recalls only that at the preaching of Jonah, Nineveh repented. The faith of the pagans confounds and judges the unbelief of the Jews. Matthew’s account goes further. As Jonah has known a sort of resurrection from the dead, so the Son of Man must die and be raised. Jesus thus announces his sufferings and resurrection. What he is will be manifested in due time. Both, however, clearly affirm his Messiahship; for who could be greater than a prophet, or greater than the majestic King Solomon, if not the Messiah?

The Messiah has come and has not been recognized by his own people. The example of Nineveh (Jonah 3) and that of the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10:1-10) anticipate a time when the Gentile nations will surpass Israel in faith. At the last day the faith of the Ninevites and the Queen of the South will be a condemnation of those who have steeled themselves against the preaching of repentance and have failed to recognize in Jesus the wisdom of God.

The little parable of verses 43-45 is addressed to those who, because they have been delivered once, believe themselves to be secure. Surreptitiously, when they least expect it, the demon returns in force, accompanied by "seven other spirits more evil than himself." This warning is addressed in the first instance to Israel. It has known great deliverances in the past; but it has left the house "empty," it has not kept in touch with the living God. Its fall will be only the more terrible in the hour of testing which is going to come upon it like a bolt out of the blue. But this warning goes beyond Israel and is addressed to believers of every age. Wherever the house is left "empty," the demons hasten there (see 1 Peter 5:8-9).

Verses 46-50

Who Are My Mother and My Brothers? (12:46-50)

The anxiety manifested by Jesus’ relatives seems to be directly related to the conflict which has just taken place between him, and the religious authorities and which has put his life in danger. This relationship is more clearly indicated in Mark than in Matthew (see Mark 3:20-35). At first glance the response of Jesus to the concern of his family seems hard. What he demands of others (see 10:34-39) he demands of himself. No human bond may impede his mission. There is only one way to be a member of his "family" to do the will of his Father who is in heaven. It is in this trait, and in no other, that he recognizes his own. But to those who do this willingly, to the obedient who have left all to follow him, he grants the magnificent favor of calling them his "brothers" (Matthew 19:27-30).

It would be false, however, to conclude from such an episode that Jesus took lightly the ties of the flesh. Such an attitude would have been contrary to the total teaching of the Old Testament (Matthew 15:3-6). Later, one of his last words was for his mother (John 19:25-27). His mother and brothers were present with the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). His brother James became a pillar of the Church (Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9). Thus, the separation of the moment eventuated in an eternity of glory for his own.

Once more Jesus puts life in the presence of the absolute demand of God. The anxious concern of families and their refusal to face the last sacrifice for those whom they love has ruined more vocations than the opposition of adversaries.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-12.html.
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