I’m aware of the risks of looking for big themes in each section of readings – Matthew put all these stories in the order he did for a reason, but it’s not necessarily along the same lines as a modern editor has divided things up. In any case, a lot of the individual pieces of the picture carry many meanings.
But for this reading, I’m taking sections as they come, and with so much happening in each block of text, it helps to look for one thing on which to focus. The thing which strikes me most in today’s passages is the collection of events and teaching about faith and the kingdom opening up to those who would not have thought they could be part of it (in contrast to those who thought they held the keys to keep the door shut) and opening up life to those discover God’s invitation to life.
It comes to the fore over the law of Sabbath-keeping. This had become one of the ‘boundary markers’ for Jewish leaders, not for its basic importance but because it was so distinctive to Israel’s faith and identity. So when Jesus allows his disciples to pluck wheat, or when he heals a disabled man, on the sabbath, he sparks their indignation. And this leads into a statement that seems to work out in different ways in many parts of his teaching and life. ‘It is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ (11:12)
When I became a Christian, the sabbath was a great discovery, and still remains a gift. Putting sabbath in the Ten Commandments, God puts taking time off up there with not murdering and not worshipping idols. But if keeping sabbath becomes something else to do, another rule, another burden, then it’s not just lost its point, it’s gone against it. Jesus reminds us that sabbath is for our benefit, not for God’s.
In general, this is part of Jesus’ whole approach to law and ‘religion’ – it’s there to serve our human living, not for us to serve it. So while he sets out (in the Sermon on the Mount) an almost impossibly high standard for what our behaviour should be, he doesn’t seem to have any kind of boundaries for who can enter into the kingdom journey of being loved by God and then, with his help, growing into that love.
Perhaps that’s why he refers the Pharisees to the story of Jonah – remember a few posts ago, when I read that one? Jonah reluctantly became God’s messenger to bring gentile sinners, the people of Nineveh, into God’s mercy. And the book ended (unlike any other in the Bible) with an unresolved question from God – is it not right that he should have mercy? This, along with a reference to ‘mercy not sacrifice’ from Hosea 6:6, is the prophet to whom Jesus refers the Pharisees.
Of himself, he says, inviting the weary to come to him, ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.
How do we make sure that faith liberates us and those around us, rather than adding burdens, unnecessary rules and restrictions to life?