Ted Grimsrud

6. Jesus’ Death and the Powers: Cultural Exlusivism (Law)

Why did Jesus get killed?  What meaning does his death have?  These two questions are closely related; neither may be answered without reference to the other.  In the following three chapters, I will focus on the first question (why did Jesus get killed?) in order to answer the second question (what meaning does Jesus’ death have?).

In brief, I will argue that Jesus died due to challenging the main cultural and political Powers of his day—the Law, the Temple, and the Empire.  He challenged these Powers by exposing them as oppressive and idolatrous in their contemporary forms.  This exposure took two forms: (1) overt critique of the Powers and (2) establishing alternative social practices that by-passed the Powers’ domination.  These Powers reacted to Jesus’ challenge by deadly retribution—executing him in the most shameful and painful way possible.

As Walter Wink writes, “the death of Jesus was not ‘necessary’ because God needed Jesus killed in order to save the world.  Rather, Jesus was killed because the Powers are in rebellion against God and are determined to silence anyone who slips through their barbed-wire perimeter with a message from the sovereign of the universe.”[1]

Jesus’ death had meaning, then, primarily (1) as a public demonstration of the Powers’ true character in their fallen state; (2) as a witness to Jesus’ own freedom from the Powers’ domination; and, when God vindicated Jesus on Easter, (3) as a testimony to God’s endorsement of Jesus’ way as true faithfulness.

We may find the meaning of Jesus’ death in relation to our hope for wholeness (salvation) in relation to the continuity of his life and teaching with the Old Testament salvation story.  Jesus lived and taught a vision of Torah in line with Moses and the prophets.  A merciful God gave the commands for the sake of human wellbeing.  As with the prophets of old, Jesus’ vision brought him into conflict with those who sought to dominate others by twisting Torah and making human beings subservient to rules and regulations.

Jesus reiterated the Old Testament message that God loves human beings, that salvation follows from simply trusting in that love, and that the social life that follows from centering life on God’s love takes the form of mutual regard and service, not domination and exploitation.

That such a message led to conflict with the cultural, religious, and political leaders has the effect of delegitimizing those leaders and their structures.  Such a public delegitimizing frees people with eyes to see from the bondage born of inappropriate trust in the dominators.  Such liberation makes up a major part of the salvation Jesus brought, made startlingly clear when he faced the death-dealing retribution of the Powers.

The three conflicts that I will examine differed in significant ways from each other.  In the first, the conflict related to the Law, the gospels tell us that Jesus debated with the leaders (the Pharisees) over the best appropriation of the Law.  Jesus affirmed the Law, but he disagreed with the Pharisees over how best to understand and apply its teachings.  This disagreement became intense; we are told that some Pharisees sought to destroy Jesus.  We should note, though, that in the story of Jesus’ actual arrest and crucifixion, the Pharisees play no role.  At that point the combined efforts of the religious and political Powers centered in Jerusalem exacted the deadly price of Jesus’ resistance to their domination.

The Gospels portray Jesus as having a respect for the Temple as it should function, but, unlike with the Law, he does not convey the message of affirming the “true Temple.”  The Temple ultimately seems to play no intrinsic role in Jesus’ portrayal of the salvation story.  Jesus apparently recognized that the Temple had not been part of Moses’ original mediation of God’s will for God’s people.  He also recognized the role the Temple played in exploiting Hebrew people and in hiding God’s intent for the Hebrews to be a light to the nations.

The third conflict, with the Empire, seems somewhat indirect in the Gospels. Jesus does not overtly challenge Rome’s rule in Palestine.  However, on the one hand, the Roman government, embodied by Pontius Pilate, obviously saw Jesus as enough of a threat to crucify him.  On the other hand, if we take seriously Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom, we will recognize that he articulated a vision for social life that overturned the values of Empire (“the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects; it shall not be so among you,” Mark 10:42-43).

In all three cases, though, we see that the conflict centered on Jesus offering an alternative vision – for how Torah might be applied, for how communal worship might be understood, and for how social life might be ordered.  His message of salvation included both a critique and delegitimization of the structures that dominated life and an articulation of a vision for how the Powers might be transformed (not simply rejected).

In looking more closely, first at the conflict concerning the Law, we must begin by looking back at the role Torah plays in the Old Testament salvation story and how its role in the life of the Hebrew community became very complicated—and, hence, how Jesus’ message led to intense quarrels.

Torah and God’s Mercy

In our discussion above of the Old Testament salvation story and of Jesus’ own teaching concerning salvation, we portrayed Torah as an expression of God’s mercy.  The Old Testament story recounts how God brought healing to the ancient Hebrews by acting graciously to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.

The next step in the outworking of this mercy was for God to reveal to the Hebrews an outline for their communal life that would solidify the gift of liberation they had been given.  This outline for communal life, the Law (Torah) came to the Hebrews as a gift.  They sought to live according to its dictates as a grateful response to God’s freely given favor, not as a means to gain that favor.  “Obedience to the commands of God is not submission to the divine fiat but response to the divine grace.  The community structured by the effort to discern God’s covenantal will is to be in harmony with the qualities revealed in God’s graceful activity to bring the community into being.”[2]

However, the story also makes it clear that lack of gratitude signifies an inability appropriately to appreciate God’s mercy—with hurtful consequences for the community.  As we saw in the eighth-century prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Micah, the Hebrews’ inability to appreciate God’s mercy—with its implication that mercy for me means mercy for everyone – led to a transformation in the society.  Injustice (the failure to recognize that the one true sign of the Hebrews’ appreciation of God’s mercy is their treatment of vulnerable people in their midst) and idolatry (trusting in sources other than God’s mercy for their identity and security) had become widespread.  As a consequence, chaos threatens to return to the community.

The prophets, reinforcing the original message of the meaning of Torah, saw the answer for the Hebrews’ problems in the “conservative” direction of returning to Torah.  Such a return involved a renewed appreciation of this merciful God alone as worthy of their trust.  It also involved shaping their common life according to God’s directives for how liberated people are to live in order to sustain their liberation and genuinely leave Egypt behind.

The prophets words did not successfully effect a social transformation.  As portrayed by prophets of the exile, the northern kingdom of Israel first, then the southern kingdom of Judah fall to outside forces because both rotted internally due to continued tolerance for injustice and idolatry.  The terrible fate of the Hebrews’ two nation states vindicated the prophets’ words.

The survival of these prophecies assured that within the Hebrew peoplehood, the prophets’ ideals remained available.  Generations later, Jesus of Nazareth, drank deeply from the wells of ancient Hebrew prophecy and Torah.  He reiterated the same basic message: God loves the world; trust in that love; shape your lives by it.  According to the story, Jesus clearly understood himself in full continuity with the Old Testament message of salvation.

Matthew’s Gospel gives this account of how Jesus answered a question concerning what he understood to be the greatest commandment.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40; also parallels).

Matthew also reports during his discussion of what could be called Jesus’ take on Torah (commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount) that Jesus characterized his relationship with the law as follows: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

We have seen as well how both Luke and Matthew make it clear in their two accounts of Jesus’ birth how observant Jesus’ family was, as well as his relatives, the family of John the Baptist.  These birth stories set the stage for the emphasis throughout all four Gospels on Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament, Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes.  And yet, the first intimations of profound conflict in Jesus’ ministry come from those who considered themselves as the guardians of Torah, the Pharisees.

Torah and Cultural Exclusivism

The roots of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees go back to post-exilic Israel.  The story tells how not long after Judah’s King Josiah was killed, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, destroying the Temple and the king’s palace.  Babylon took the Judean ruling class into exile.  Eventually, in a battle of empires, the Persian Empire defeated Babylon and allowed Jewish exiles to return to their homeland.  The earlier prophetic warnings of likely disaster should Israel and Judah not more faithfully order their lives according to Torah remained in the people’s memories.  Many committed themselves to avoid repeating the past transgressions, to work harder to shape Jewish life in Israel according to the dictates of the law.

The post-exilic existence of the Jewish people was always uneasy, a struggle to sustain their identity without being a nation-state.  The community bounced from the domination of one empire to another—Babylon to Persia down to Rome of Jesus’ day.  Out of this struggle to survive as a people, the Israelites developed strategies to maintain their identity.  At the core of these efforts we find the establishment of “boundary markers” that provided for ways to make it clear who was a part of the community and who was not.  Key markers included the practice of male circumcision, following kosher eating habits, observing the Sabbath, and prohibiting marriages between people within the community and those outside the community.

These strategies should not be seen as inherently regressive, but rather as creative means to sustain peoplehood in a hostile environment.[3] These obvious and enforceable practices served as ways for the Hebrew people to keep alive their community’s traditions and understandings of themselves as Yahweh’s people.  Surely, the emergence of a strong commitment to revitalize the observance of Torah did much to sustain Jewish identity as a peoplehood without a nation-state.

During this period of the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the writings that eventually were joined together to make the Hebrew scriptures were gathered, edited, and organized.  Concerns for making Torah central for the identity of the people greatly shaped how the Bible was formed.

From the point of view of the vision of Abraham’s children blessing the nations by showing the world God’s liberating mercy, the dynamics around the quest for preservation of the community created tensions.  The identity-makers could become absolutized.  The chronology of the Bible’s salvation story, first liberating mercy indicating God’s favor, then, the response of obeying the law or offering sacrifice, may be forgotten.  Then we have the problem of obeying the law or offering sacrifice becoming the means of obtaining God’s mercy.  Such an inverting of the chronology of salvation generally has disastrous spiritual consequences.

The same type of problem attends to the establishing of boundary markers.  In the Hebrews’ social context, precarious, dominated by foreign empires (or, for those diasporic Jews who did not return to Palestine, seeking to sustain their community as a minority culture), the establishment of clear distinguishing practices surely played an essential role in maintaining their identity.  However, the purpose of maintaining the identity remained potentially elusive.

For the prophets, when boundary markers reminded the people of God’s already-given mercy and their calling to bless the nations, they would be creative and life sustaining.  Yet, the boundary markers could convey the wrong message.  They could be absolutized, providing a sense that our community’s survival in and of itself matters most.  In such circumstances, any threat to its survival (equated with any threat to the boundary markers) must be stopped.

The Bible, though formed in order to help the community survive in the colonial context and though the editors and shapers surely believed in the need for the strong boundary markers, nonetheless allows for warning voices that keep the prophetic impulse alive in Israel.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah portray sympathetically the necessary and surely creative efforts to sustain peoplehood in the context of colonialism.  They provide the rationale for the boundary markers.  However, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, we also find the little book of Jonah.  The tensions between Ezra and Nehemiah versus Jonah prefigure the tensions we see in the Gospels between Jesus, representing the prophetic impulse of the book of Jonah, and the Pharisees, representing the great priest Ezra’s concern for community sustenance through the maintenance of boundary markers such as circumcision, kosher eating, and sabbath observance.  Though we cannot date Jonah precisely, many commentators place it roughly at the time of Ezra.  If so, the book likely intended to challenge an uncritical growth in absolutizing the boundary markers and institutionalizing religion among the Hebrews.

The prophet Jonah represents Hebrews who think only of their internal life when he rejects the call to share the word of God with outsiders.  And these were not just any outsiders.  The Ninevites lived in the capital city of Assyria, the great empire that plagued Israel and Judah.  As such, they represent people from all the empires that sought to crush Israelite traditions and distinctiveness.  After fleeing from Nineveh, Jonah discovers first through trauma then through miraculous rescue that God is way bigger than the boundaries of Israel.  After being saved from drowning, Jonah does go to Nineveh and does successfully witness to them.  God responds to the Ninevites with mercy because, as Jonah fears, God is “a gracious and compassionate God” (4:2).

This story reiterates the “light-to-the-nations” calling and implies that efforts to sustain the community still need to keep that calling in mind.  The book concludes with an open question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”  We are not given Jonah’s answer, implying that this question needs continual reflection among the Hebrews.

The Traditions of the Pharisees

Jonah provides a witness to the impulse that Jesus sought to further in the social world of first-century Jewish Palestine.  When Jesus did so, he almost immediately came into conflict with a group of Ezra’s spiritual descendants known as the Pharisees.

Though Jesus understood himself as living fully in the tradition of Moses, he did not share fully in the Pharisaic understanding of that tradition.  Most centrally, Jesus did not affirm the Pharisees’ use of the oral law.  Jesus shared an affirmation of the written law, Torah—the five books of Moses—as God’s directives for life.  The Pharisees, though, gave much more authority to traditional interpretations that sought to apply Torah more widely.

After the Babylonian exile, when the restored Palestinian Jewish community sought more faithfulness to Torah, teachers produced verse-by-verse commentary of Torah known, Midrash.  Midrash applied specific laws more directly.  The extensive commentary was passed on by word of mouth over the generations, hence the term “oral law.”[4]

A second type of oral law began to emerge about two hundred years before Jesus.  If the Midrash was a commentary on Torah, interpreting and applying the actual writings of the Bible, this second type of tradition, the Mishnah, concerned itself with applying Torah to circumstances not spoken of in the biblical writings.  The written version of the Mishnah, called the Talmud, was not produced until the 4th century CE.[5]

The Mishnah also came to be called the oral law, or, as in Mark 7:5, the “tradition of the elders.”  It gave community people guidance on how to live Torah, recognizing the common gap between the words of Torah and issues of daily living.  When it began to develop, the oral law was understood to be secondary to written Torah.  Over time the authority of the oral law grew.  The Pharisees probably emerged around the same time as the beginnings of the Mishnah, and may have understood their role to be the main guardians and appliers of these teachings.  “Theologically, the Pharisees shared common Jewish orthodoxy (they believed in one God, the election of Israel, the divine origin of the law, and repentance and forgiveness).  They developed a substantial body of non-biblical ‘traditions’ [oral law] about how to observe the law.”[6]

The oral law developed into an extensive and detailed system of practical law, much more extensive than Torah itself.[7] The Mishnah guided religious practice among Palestinian Jews, attempting to speak to all kinds of religious issues that might arise.  These are a tiny sampling of the kinds of questions the Mishnah spoke to: “Can laborers on top of a tree or wall offer a prayer?  Can one open up quarries or wells during a sabbatical year?  If one is naked and makes a dough offering from barley in one’s house, does that make the offering unclean?  Is tying a knot considered work that violates the Sabbath?  Can a man divorce his wife for burning a meal?  What is the proper death penalty for someone who blasphemes – burning, stoning, beheading, or strangling?  Is a man ceremonially unclean if he touches a mouse?  If an unclean bird sits on the eggs of a clean bird do the eggs remain ceremonially clean?”[8]

As the ones overseeing the application of the oral law, the Pharisees echoed the motivation from hundreds of years before when Ezra oversaw the implementation of the boundary marker-oriented approach to strengthening Israel’s identity.  Ezra sought to sustain the people of Yahweh as a distinct community in the face of great pressures to assimilate and lose their identity.  The Pharisees reflected that same impulse.[9]

“The Pharisaic program was intended for all of Israel.  They did not intend to be a party within Israel but intended to be Israel itself.  The Pharisees became the bearers of the quest for holiness in public life, the classic representatives of the course adopted by Judaism in its inner development during the post-exilic epoch.”[10]

The Pharisees sought to give clear direction to observant Jews concerning applying Torah to concrete living.  They sought to present the law of Moses as living and relevant, a life-enhancing source of clarity for living as a distinct community that would honor God.  The Pharisees sought to call forth a holy nation in the face of great pressure from the outside world to conform uncritically to the all-powerful Roman Empire.  “The Pharisees sought to extent or at least live out the holiness required in the Temple more widely in the holy land.”[11]

“The quest for holiness accounts for the movement of internal reform within Judaism, with its greater emphasis on Sabbath observance, proper tithing, prohibition of marriage with non-Jews, etc.  It also accounts for the increasing separation from the nations.  Theologically, the calamity of 586 BCE was seen as God’s judgment upon Israel because of its corruption by the practices of the nations.”[12]

In the gospels, Pharisees concerned themselves with three central boundary markers from the time of Ezra: circumcision, kosher eating, and Sabbath observance.[13] “Precisely those regulations of the Torah that marked the distinctiveness of the Jewish people—Sabbath observance, circumcision, rules governing foods and eating—were the ones to be developed in greater detail as defenses against the temptations to assimilation in the sea of Hellenism.”[14]

The law of Moses clearly forbade working on the Sabbath.  Descendants of the Hebrews liberated from Egypt must remember that they were no longer slaves; they could rest one day a week.  The detail the Mishnah went into considering Sabbath observance reflects how seriously the command to honor it was taken.  In its written form, the Mishnah devotes 240 paragraphs to Sabbath behavior, outlining in detailed specificity what could and could not be done.

In practice, such a detailed focus seemed to change the people’s emphases concerning the Sabbath.  The emphases changed from concern to affirm and celebrate God’s mercy and the value God has placed on human beings (such that slavery is rejected).  When the central concern became sustaining boundary markers more than celebrating God’s mercy, the whole tone of Sabbath legislation changed.

For one thing, legalism easily reared its head. Ingenious devices evolved that allowed people to finesse (or get around altogether) restrictive legislation.  Donald Kraybill gives an example.  The law dictated that people were not allowed to walk more than 3,000 feet on the Sabbath.  However, to circumvent this, they could “establish residence” at the end of their Sabbath day’s walk, a day in advance.  They established residence by carrying two meals to a place 3,000 feet from their home.  One meal they ate there and another they buried – thereby “establishing residence.”  On the Sabbath day, people could travel the 3,000 feet from their permanent home to their “newly established residence” and then go an additional 3,000 feet.  This legal detour doubled the length of the Sabbath-day journeys.[15]

Another even more serious problem for Jesus resulted because the Sabbath had been established as a central boundary marker.  Anyone guilty of violating the Sabbath (and of hence violating a central boundary marker) threatened the entire community.  The Sabbath had become crucial for a sense of community identity.  Those who adhered to the oral law’s Sabbath regulations thereby validated their identity as community members; those who did not would be excluded.  And, as enforcers of the oral law, the Pharisees took on the role of keeper of valid membership in the community.  Anyone who threatened their practice of boundary maintenance threatened the Pharisees’ status head on.

The concern for kosher eating practices also stemmed from a concern about maintaining purity—again reflecting the post-exilic desire to avoid a repeat of the judgment that had befallen “impure” Judah and Israel.

In this purity-conscious context, table-fellowship carried great weight.  Inviting a person to share a meal showed great respect for that person; conversely, one would never share a meal with those outside one’s community’s boundaries.  Those considered dirty and polluted must be avoided.  To eat with another indicated acceptance.

Should a pure person share a meal with an impure person, the latter’s pollution was understood to be contagious.  So, table fellowship with unclean people violated purity regulations.  So, too, did failure to engage in ritual cleansing prior to eating.  This washing purified one from any “dirt” inadvertently obtained in one’s daily life.

In order to help people differentiate between clean and unclean, the oral law provided detailed specifics.  “Camels, badgers, swine, vultures, eagles, and winged insects, to name a few, were all considered unclean.  Cemeteries were taboo.  Contact with a contaminated person or animal polluted a clean object.  The Mishnah devoted 185 pages to laws of defilement and purity.  Ceremonial washing before each meal marked conscientious Pharisees.”  They exerted great effort to maintain ritual purity, hoping to contribute thereby to Israel’s faithfulness.[16]

Of the various means Israelites used to distinguish themselves from the surrounding world, circumcision went back the farthest—even to the story of Abraham (Genesis 17).  The Abraham story portrays circumcision as a sign of the covenant.  It signified one’s close connection with Yahweh—both the promises and expectations.  By the time of exile in the 6th century BCE, with its inevitable mixing of Hebrews with Gentiles, circumcision served as the definitive sign of Jewishness.

During the exile, Jews sought mightily to retain their distinctiveness in relation to the surrounding world.  Doing so required explicit self-consciousness.  The sustenance of their Jewish identity depended, among other things, upon the practice of circumcision.  Israel clarified its own identity in relation to uncircumcised others.

The practice of circumcision stood as a central externally apparent boundary marker for the Hebrews throughout the biblical period.  However, from the time of the prophets, circumcision became an ambiguous symbol.  Jeremiah 9:25-26, for example, speaks of the standard distinction between the circumcised (Israel) and the uncircumcised.  Jeremiah, however, makes this distinction in order to criticize Israel, said to be “circumcised only in the foreskin” but “uncircumcised in heart.”

Other passages reflect the same concern when they link circumcision with other parts of the body, such as the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4), the ears (Jere. 6:10), and the lips (Exod. 6:12,30).  These texts use the notion of circumcision metaphorically to refer to organs (other than the penis) that are to function freshly in obedient responsiveness to the demands of Yahweh’s covenant.  The usage suggests a means of making the organ more sensitive and responsive, so that “circumcision” moves from literalness to theological commitment. [17]

Throughout the biblical tradition we see tensions concerning the use of these boundary markers.  On the one hand, we see a strong impulse for community preservation and for finding security via close adherence to regulations that reflect God’s will.  On the other hand, we see prophetic concern for the problem of externalization of religion that leads to a loss of emphasis on core prophetic themes such as liberation, compassion, and living justice.

These tensions clearly shaped the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus.  “The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is to a considerable extent about the social vision that flows from taking the traditions of Israel seriously.  For the Pharisees, the core value of their social vision was holiness/ purity; the core values of Jesus’ social vision was compassion.”[18]

Jesus and the Pharisees

In the Gospel of Matthew, initially, in the early period after Jesus begins his ministry, the allusions to religious leaders are innocuous, even positive.  Directly after returning “from the mountain” where he gave his great Sermon, Jesus heals a leper and instructs him to “go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them,” an allusion to Leviticus 14 and the procedure outlined there for the ritual healing of leprosy (Matthew 8:1-4).  A little later, a scribe approaches Jesus wanting to follow him (Matthew 8:19).[19] At this point in the story, we see no hints of conflict.

However, the storm clouds soon begin to gather.  Jesus journeys to Gentile territory to heal two demoniacs (Matthew 8:28-34).  When he returns home, he immediately tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven.  “Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming’” (9:3).  Jesus catches wind of the criticism, and immediately intensifies the tension by healing the man and asserting directly that he has the power both to forgive sins and heal paralytics (9:6).

Matthew first mentions the Pharisees by name in the next episode when Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him and then joins with “many tax collectors and sinners” to sit at dinner.  “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:10-11).

From now on, tensions escalate.  A paradigmatic account of the growing conflict and a sense of what is at stake may be found at Matthew 12:1-14 (and parallels, Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; and Luke 6:1-11).  Because the Pharisees were out among the people, seeking to help with faithful adherence to the dictates of the oral Torah, Jesus encountered them often.  “The similarity between Jesus and the Pharisees—sharing the same tradition, struggling with the same questions, competing for the allegiance of the same people—accounts for the depth of the conflict between them.”[20]

“The effect of arguing that Jesus was very close to the Pharisees, not least on matters of the law, is to increase the likelihood of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, not lessen it.  A successful Jesus who was observant of the law and yet not a Pharisee was bound to be regarded as some sort of competitor and to cause some friction and conflict.  A Jesus who was as loyal to the covenant but who had different ideas of what covenant loyalty involved would almost certainly pose a threat to Pharisaic self-understanding and identity.”[21]

The Matthew 12 passage contains two stories that illustrate Jesus’ contrast with the Pharisees.  For Jesus, here, immediate human wellbeing takes precedence over strict adherence to the letter of the Law concerning Sabbath regulations.  This choice of priorities clearly reflects Jesus’ understanding of salvation as a matter of God’s free mercy rather than human beings finding a way to cohere with God’s “holiness.”

The first story in Matthew 12 tells of Jesus’ allowing his disciples to gather grain and eat on a Sabbath day because they were so hungry.  The Pharisees who learned of this confronted Jesus.  “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (12:2).

Jesus responds with a couple of biblical examples of how the Sabbath Laws are not absolute.  “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for his or his companions to eat, but only for the priests” (12:3; for David’s acts see 1 Samuel 21:1-6; the legislation concerning the bread of the Presence may be found at Leviticus 24:5-9.

So, even though the letter of the Law asserts that this bread was only for priests, a “higher law,” that of giving food to hungry people, allowed for an exception.

The second example, “have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the Temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless?” (12:5).  The Sabbath Law makes exceptions for priests (see Numbers 28:9-10), allowing them to do work that exceeds strict adherence to the letter of the Law in importance.  Jesus’ example implies that the Temple must take priority over strict adherence to Sabbath legislation.  Jesus continues by asserting “something greater than the temple is here” (12:6).  Hence, what is present (the kingdom of God as represented in Jesus’ ministry) must certainly take priority over strict adherence to the Sabbath regulations.

What “is here” is characterized by the quote from Hosea 6:6 that Jesus uses to cement his point: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7).  So, what actually is greater than the Temple (the place where “sacrifice” happens) is the central characteristic of God’s kingdom: mercy.  Jesus contrasts this mercy with the Pharisees’ condemnatory attitude toward needy people getting something to eat.  These are two very different notions of religious priorities.

Mark’s version tells of Jesus summarizing the issues in this way: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  This saying makes it clear that the basic issue is not that the Pharisees believed in the Law and Jesus did not.  Rather, we have a contrast between two concepts of the purpose of the Law.  One emphasizes that the deeper meaning of the Law (i.e., mercy) allows for flexibility in how the details are practiced, as long as we are serving human well-being.  The other points more to strict consistency, assuming that each piece of the regulations carry equal weight and that to violate one is to violate the whole.

The second altercation in our Matthew 12 passage escalates the conflict.  Jesus moves on to a synagogue, it still being the Sabbath.  The Pharisees set Jesus up for criticism when they point to a man with a withered hand and ask, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” (12:10).

Jesus answers their question with a parallel type of logic to what he used in the first encounter.  Here, he starts with the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath.  “Will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (12:11).  He assumes anyone would say, “of course it is.”  Then he makes his point.  “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” (12:12).

This is to say, of course it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  As central as Sabbath observance is to living in harmony with God, one must realize that all the regulations are meant to foster human wholeness, not to be ends in themselves.  To underscore his point, and to defy the apparent assumptions of the Pharisees that the letter of the Law matters the most, Jesus concludes the encounter by healing the man’s withered hand.

Jesus makes it clear here, with his assertion that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” that his conflict with the Pharisees is about who best understands the purpose of the Law.  Healing a person is within what the Sabbath Law allows.  Jesus does not reject the Law but sets observance of it in the context of the wider meaning of the Law.  Mercy comes first.  The issue is not Law or no Law; the issue is how the law is interpreted.

“Jesus refuses to make the Sabbath a rest case of obedience to God, a distinctive mark of God’s people.  Rather, he presses beyond such concerns to more fundamental issues: that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath, and that at no time, however sacred, can it be wrong to do good or save life.  To thus focus too much attention on ‘the fence round the Torah’ was itself to endanger what the fence was intended to protect.”[22]

We have here a deadly serious set of differences, made clear by the Pharisees’ response.  “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:14).  Refusing to be intimidated, though, Jesus, after he becomes aware of the Pharisees plans, leaves the synagogue, is followed by many people, “and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).  He reiterates his understanding of what is appropriate for the Sabbath—bringing healing to those in need.

What is at stake in this conflict?  Why would the Pharisees conspire to destroy Jesus because of these altercations?  We may see at the heart of the Pharisees’ response, according to these stories, the conviction that the integrity of their purity project might require the use of violence to be sustained.  That is, they would follow the logic of retribution in responding to someone who violates their understanding of God’s will for their society.  “The Pharisees’ core is purity, because they wish to replicate in their social life the holiness of God by maintaining the holiness to which God has called the people (Leviticus 19:2).  Jesus’ core value is forgiveness, because he views God as a God of mercy (Luke 6:36).”[23]

The Pharisees committed themselves to the survival of the covenant community.  This survival required strict adherence to the Law as they interpreted it.  Violations of the Law, if left uncorrected, threatened the community’s survival.  For the Pharisees the covenant community was the central structure that demanded their loyalty.  This loyalty required strict cultural exclusivism, with clear lines of demarcation between insiders and outsiders.

Jesus moves among them, ministering within the same community, and shows slackness in relation to sustaining the boundaries (such as eating with tax collectors and sinners, thereby violating the eating purity codes; or healing Gentiles, thereby disregarding the clear separation reflected in the practice of circumcision; or allowing his followers to eat freshly picked grain on the Sabbath and then, himself, healing on the Sabbath, thereby disregarding the Sabbath regulations).  Jesus thus threatens the very existence of this Power that had become an absolute for these Pharisees.  Hence, he deserves vengeance.

“Many Pharisees saw their practice of table-fellowship as characterizing Israel set apart to Yahweh, as therefore requiring separation from the impure, the non-observant, the sinner, precisely at and by means of the meal table.  Jesus in contrast enacted an open table-fellowship; he himself was open to invitations from a wide range of people; he was notorious for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Holiness for Jesus, we might say, was not a negative excluding force, but a positive including force.”[24]

Jesus is also challenging the Pharisees’ authority as interpreters of Torah.  He debates scripture with them and dares to make a flat assertion concerning that content of the Law codes that goes totally against what they taught.  Jesus does not reject the law; rather, he “claimed to defend its intent against interpretations which would destroy its meaning or dull its edge.”[25]

Jesus’ de-emphasizing external markers for purity also undercut Pharisaic authority by depriving them of their bases for determining who would be in good standing within the covenant community and who would not.  “Jesus objected against a boundary-drawing within Israel which treated some Israelites as outside the covenant beyond the grace of God.  Such attempts to erect internal boundaries within Israel, creating internal divisions within Israel, were contrary to the will of God.  Jesus was more critical of those who dismissively condemned ‘sinners’ than of ‘sinners’ themselves.  Just as the poor were God’s special concern, so the excluded and marginalized were of special concern for Jesus’ mission.”[26]

The Apostle Paul’s writings, especially his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, help clarify why this conflict over the law would have been so volatile.  The basic problem, in Paul’s perspective, was that the Law had become for many in the covenant community not so much practical guidance for how to live faithfully in light of God’s mercy and saving work for Israel—as it was in the books of Moses.  Instead, for many, including the Pharisees as presented in the Gospels, the Law had become their community’s badge of cultural exclusivism.

In line with the cultural exclusivists, people within the covenant community understood their adherence to the regulations, including both the written Torah and the oral Torah, as the basis for sustaining their identity as God’s specially chosen people.  Doing rituals that marked them as different from those outside their community (what Paul termed “works of the Law,” Rom. 3:20) sustained this sense of difference.

Three key areas where the laws were especially important for identity sustenance were food laws (kosher food, ritual cleansing), Sabbath observance, and the circumcision of males.  Faithfulness to these practices was absolutely necessary to Israel’s identity; it showed that these practices signified God’s special connection with the covenant community.

For Jesus to challenge reliance on these practices as the center of religious life threatened the entire system at its core.  These practices were “sacred.”  They were absolutely necessary, since Israel’s distinctiveness from the Gentiles was at the heart of her identity as envisioned by the Pharisees.  For example, “Jesus’ table companionship with toll collectors and sinners was a profanation of the Pharisees’ version of the great tradition, and therefore, an offense to Moses.  Jesus reclined with the impure and the unclean, without apology or hesitation.”[27]

This focus on the Law as identity guarantor fostered a very brittle social dynamic, as seen in the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as presented in the Gospels.

The Pharisees became convinced that they determined who did and who did not have the possibility of gaining God’s favor.  They surely saw the actual arbiter of such a possibility being the Law itself, not themselves as human beings.  However, the Law always requires human interpreters, and those interpreters cannot help but bend the Law to serve their own biases.  Because the Pharisees’ bias was toward ritual purity, they erected very high and rigid standards for access to God—and perceived Jesus’ challenge to those standards as a direct threat.[28]

When such identity markers have a determinative role for the community’s self-understanding, a large part of the value the community gives itself will tend to be based on the existence of outsiders.  Should the clear lines of exclusion be softened and alleged outsiders are not so clearly excluded, the community’s sense of its value is threatened.  In Jesus’ context, for him to claim on the one hand to be an emissary of God and authoritative interpreter of the Law (seen in his powerful acts) and, on the other hand, to extend welcome to outsiders also would have been perceived as a direct threat.

With the covenant community so concerned with its own survival, the original vocation given this community—to be a light to the nations (Genesis 12:3)—may be pushed to the side.  For Jesus to remind the community of this vocation, both by his openness to Gentiles and by his emphasis on the community being attractive to outsiders due to its practice of mercy and justice, would also likely to be perceived as a direct threat.

The Law and Retribution Toward Jesus

Jesus and the Pharisees differed sharply over the relative weight to be given to strict adherence to the regulations as compared to mercy-oriented flexibility.  If one sees the strict adherence as essential to the sustenance of the community, an emphasis on the need for flexibility would easily be perceived as a direct threat.

The basic dynamic may be understood as one of placing loyalty to the covenant community’s survival as the highest loyalty.  For those who understood this survival to depend on strict legalism within the community, the strictest and harshest treatment of those whose antinomianism threatens the community’s survival becomes necessary.

Jesus did not accept the Pharisees’ sense of loyalty to the covenant community as they defined that community.  In his view, the quest for a “pure” community insofar as it led to harshness, violence, and hurtful exclusivism, was a misguided quest that violated—rather than upheld—Torah.  So he acted to embody a different vision of the community characterized by inclusiveness even toward those the Pharisees considered unclean.

Jesus did violate the community standards established by the Pharisees and transgress the law—as interpreted by the Pharisees.  In their opposition to Jesus and seeking “to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14), they simply enforced what they saw as God-ordained retributive justice against one who broke the law and thereby threatened the work God was seeking to do through Israel.

However, as the gospels tell the story, Jesus actually represented the true God—shown by his remarkable deeds: healing disease, overpowering Satan and demons, teaching authoritatively.  Jesus, though a genuinely good person, nonetheless deserved punishment according to the dictates of the religious leaders.  The Gospels present us with a direct conflict between the forces of cultural exclusivism and the true God.  Cultural exclusivism and its attendant reliance on the Law understood in a legalistic way, proves itself to be a Power in rebellion against the true God.

Jesus did not flinch from conflicts with the Powers of cultural exclusivism—as we saw in Matthew 12:1-14 when he debates with the Pharisees and openly violates their view of the Law by healing on the Sabbath, again and again.  He intended to make it very clear for those with eyes to see that the true God values mercy and healing above cultural exclusivism.  By his own living freely in the face of hostility from the defenders of cultural exclusivism, Jesus offers the way to salvation from bondage to those Powers.

As portrayed in the Ggospels, those Powers responded to Jesus’ display of powerful healing love by seeking to destroy him.  Such an act would, for those with eyes to see, actually delegitimize the Powers’ and their claims to represent God.  For such people, simply to turn to God shown by Jesus (as with the Prodigal Son) provides all that is needed to gain salvation.

As it turns out, the Pharisees actually fade into the background when the actual arrest and execution of Jesus occurs.  It would appear that they were kind of pushed aside by other Powers—and the Pharisees remained unwilling to ally themselves with the Powers linked with the temple and the Roman Empire.

That the Pharisees were not complicit in the actual killing of Jesus must, on the one hand, be remembered.  The relationship between the Pharisees and the message of Jesus should be recognized as being more complex than texts such as Matthew 12:1-14 might indicate.  Jesus’ commonality with the Pharisees was much more extensive than with the Temple and the Empire.

Yet, on the other hand, we should not diminish the conflict either.  According to the story, in the years immediately following Jesus’ death, the Pharisees led violent opposition to Jesus’ followers.  That opposition did result in executions, most famously the stoning to death of the Christian leader named Stephen recounted in the Book of Acts.

The conflicts with the Pharisees continued and focused, as the gospels portray the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, on the issue of the interpretation of the Law.  The early Jesus movement rejected cultural exclusivism.  This rejection led to the inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles into their version of the covenant community—and on-going conflicts.


[1] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 102.

[2] Bruce Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 126.

[3] Birch, Let Justice Roll, 308-309.

[4] C.A. Evans, “Midrash,” in Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 544-548.

[5] Roger Brooks, “Mishnah,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume IV (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 871-873.

[6] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), 44.

[7] Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Oral Tradition (Early Judaism),” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume V (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 34-37.

[8] Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, second edition (Scottdale: PA: Herald Press, 1990), 153.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, volume one (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 269-270.

[10] Marchus J. Borg, Conflict and Holiness in the Teachings of Jesus, second edition (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 74.

[11] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 288.  Cf. also William P. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 148.

[12] Borg, Conflict, 67.

[13] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Mark, and the Law (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 193.

[14] Paul Van Buren, A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality, Part 2: Christ in Context (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 191.

[15] Kraybill, Upside-Down, 157.

[16] Kraybill, Upside-Down, 158-159.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith, 33.

[18] Borg, Conflict, 7-8.

[19] The Gospels are somewhat ambiguous in their use of “scribe.”  They are most generally portrayed as “bureaucrats and experts on Jewish life,” affiliated both with the temple and the Pharisees.  Matthew links them more closely with the Pharisees than Luke or Mark (Anthony T. Salderini, “Scribes,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume V, 1015).

[20] Borg, Conflict, 153.

[21] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, 73.

[22] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 569.

[23] Herzog, Jesus, 177; see also Borg, Conflict, 7-8 and Dunn, Jesus, Paul, 79-80.

[24] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 603 (Dunn’s italics).

[25] John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 49.

[26] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 532.

[27] Herzog, Jesus, 153.

[28] Borg, Conflict, 100.

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