Defining Work: Matthew 12:9-21

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One of the things I admire about Jesus is His skillful way of answering challenging questions. The event we are looking at in this episode, which is found in three of the four gospels contains one such question, and it is in this question and answer that Jesus gives where we find a fascinating insight into God, His Law, and a right understanding of it.

For our episode this week, we will be looking at Matthew’s version of this event, which is found in Matthew, chapter 12, and we will be using the Good News Translation. Starting in verse 9, we read:

Jesus left that place and went to a synagogue, 10 where there was a man who had a paralyzed hand. Some people were there who wanted to accuse Jesus of doing wrong, so they asked him, “Is it against our Law to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 Jesus answered, “What if one of you has a sheep and it falls into a deep hole on the Sabbath? Will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 And a human being is worth much more than a sheep! So then, our Law does allow us to help someone on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man with the paralyzed hand, “Stretch out your hand.”

He stretched it out, and it became well again, just like the other one. 14 Then the Pharisees left and made plans to kill Jesus.

Let’s pause reading here because I want to draw our attention onto this question and answer. The Pharisees have skillfully come up with a question where they know the correct answer, but they want to trap Jesus in His own words. The question they asked is designed to trick Jesus into saying work is acceptable, which violates the fourth commandment, because in their minds, Jesus is playing the role of physician, and the work doctors do is heal their patients.

Even if they considered Jesus to be more than simply a doctor or physician, it would be a double standard to hold the doctor’s healing as work while Jesus’ healing is not.

Jesus’ response begins by setting up a hypothetical scenario, perhaps one that had even happened recently, describing a sheep that had fallen into a hole. A sheep trapped in any way like the one described would be a prime target for a wolf or other predator. It would be logical to put forth a little effort to help free the sheep.

With the stage set, Jesus elevates humanity above this hypothetical sheep before giving the gist of His answer. Jesus’ response to the question is that the Law does allow for us to help each other on the Sabbath.

Perhaps God’s law has a built in double standard. Maybe if the owner of the sheep lifts it out it is considered work, because the sheep is connected to its owner’s wealth, while a friend or stranger seeing the sheep fall into the hole is not obligated or rewarded in any way by the sheep being saved. In the stranger’s case, there is nothing compelling him or her to offer help, so the action is purely altruistic and/or selfless.

However, I don’t believe there is a double standard. Help is help, while work is work. If the goal of an action is to be paid or compensated in some way, then it is work; but if the goal of an action is to benefit someone else without any pay or compensation being expected, then it is help. This is how I define the difference between this potentially confusing set of concepts.

Jesus’ instruction to the man to stretch out his hand is the least work-like way of helping. All Jesus did was simply speak and that is something that is easily acceptable on a Sabbath, or any other day. And this instruction prompted a miraculous healing, which also couldn’t be considered work, because we are free to move our limbs in any way we choose on every day of the week.

However, the Pharisees did not like this response or outcome, and they begin plotting to kill Jesus. When we continue reading in verse 15, we learn that:

15 When Jesus heard about the plot against him, he went away from that place; and large crowds followed him. He healed all the sick 16 and gave them orders not to tell others about him. 17 He did this so as to make come true what God had said through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,

    the one I love, and with whom I am pleased.

I will send my Spirit upon him,

    and he will announce my judgment to the nations.

19 He will not argue or shout,

    or make loud speeches in the streets.

20 He will not break off a bent reed,

    nor put out a flickering lamp.

He will persist until he causes justice to triumph,

21     and on him all peoples will put their hope.”

In these verses, Matthew draws our attention onto a prophecy about Jesus that God gave through the prophet Isaiah. When I read this prophecy, I am impressed with the description of the Messiah that is shared. This prophecy tells us that Jesus will announce God’s judgment on the nations, and that He won’t argue, shout, or speak loudly in the streets. Jesus won’t break off a bent reed or put out a flickering lamp, and He will persist until He causes justice to triumph.

The last phrase really stands out in my mind. Verse 21 concludes by saying: “and on him all peoples will put their hope.

Jesus came to be the Savior for all people. Jesus wasn’t just sent to help the Jews. He came to help people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. While there are occasions where Jesus tells a foreigner that He only came to help the Jews, in each case, with persistence and pushback from the person requesting help, Jesus always complies and helps the situation.

Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that Jesus persisted until He caused justice to triumph. Justice in this case is God’s punishment for sin, and Jesus persisted until His last breath on the cross. Isaiah’s prophecy both foreshadows Jesus’ death as well as His arrival for all people.

Jesus came to help those who needed help and He came to give us a view of God’s Law that allows us to be a blessing to others. The Law was never meant to be a pair of hand-cuffs, but a systematic way of growing a community of people both spiritually and socially. And because Jesus viewed God’s Law this way when the Pharisees didn’t, they wanted to kill Him, which ironically would be a violation of the Law they claim to obey.

While the Pharisees plotted against Jesus, Isaiah’s prophecy that foreshadowed Jesus’ death for all human-kind was being fulfilled.

As we come to the close of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I want to leave you with:

Choose to seek God in a way that prompts you to focus on helping others. While many people, including those living in the first century, believe that serving God can be separate from helping others, choose to model your life after Jesus’ life. Jesus blended obeying God and helping others. It appears, at least to me, that whenever there was a supposed conflict between obedience and helping someone, Jesus always choose to help. Perhaps this is how we should be in our own lives.

However, don’t take my word for this. You should prayerfully study the Bible, and this decision for yourself, because only by being connected with God through the Holy Spirit and His Word will you even know what Jesus is like. You can only accurately model someone you have truly learned about.

And as I always end each set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Season 3 – Episode 9: Cam discusses a trap the Pharisees set for Jesus, and a prophecy He fulfills through the way He chose to act.

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