Matthew 12

The Word Made Fresh

1Around that time Jesus was walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples began to pluck and eat the grain because they were hungry. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to Jesus, “Look here; your disciples are breaking the Sabbath laws.”

3He replied, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his men were hungry? 4He went into God’s house and ate the sacred bread there, which is against the law – only the priests are allowed to eat that bread. 5And haven’t you read that the priests may break the Sabbath laws without punishment? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7If you knew what is meant by the saying, ‘I want mercy, not sacrifice,’ you wouldn’t condemn the innocent. 8The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

9He went on from that place to the synagogue. 10There was a man there whose hand was shriveled. They asked him, “Is it legal to heal on the Sabbath?” They were trying to find a way to accuse him.

11Jesus told them, “If you had but one sheep and it fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? 12A person is more valuable than a sheep. So, it is lawful to do good deeds on the Sabbath.” 13Then he said to the man with the damaged hand, “Stretch out you hand.” He did, and it was normal – as normal as his other hand! 14But the Pharisees began to make plans to do him harm.

15When Jesus got word of their intentions he left the town, but a lot of people followed him, and he healed all of them. 16He ordered them not to tell others what he had done. 17All this was according to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who had said:

18“This is my beloved servant whom I chose,
and in whom I am pleased.
I will bestow on him my spirit,
and he will bring justice to the Gentiles.
19He will not argue or shout;
no one will hear him speaking in the streets.
20He won’t break even a damaged reed,
or douse a smoldering wick
until he is victorious with justice.
21And the Gentiles will find hope in his name.”

22Some people brought a man to him, who was possessed by a demon that rendered him blind and mute. He cured the man, who was then able to speak and to see again. 23The people in the crowds were astounded. “Can this be David’s son?” they asked. 24But when the Pharisees heard about it they said, “He can cast out demons only through the power of Beelzebul, the demons’ ruler.”

25Jesus heard what they were saying, and answered them, “Every kingdom that is divided against itself is doomed to failure, and no city or family that is divided against itself will remain intact. 26If Satan throws out Satan, he is attacking himself. Then how can his kingdom survive? 27If I am casting out demons by Beelzebul’s authority, then tell me by whose authority your own people cast them out? They will be your judges. 28But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, that means the kingdom of God has come to you. 29How can anyone break into a strong man’s house and steal his property without tying him up first? Then they can plunder his house. 30Whoever is not for me is against me. Whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31So, I tell you that people can be forgiven every sin and insult, but insulting the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32Whoever says anything against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Not now. Not ever.

33“If you make a tree good, its fruit will be good. If you make a tree bad, so will its fruit be. After all, a tree is known by its fruit. 34You bunch of snakes! How can you say good things when you are wicked? The mouth speaks from the heart. 35A good man brings good things from a good treasure store, but the wicked man brings wicked things from his wicked treasure store. 35I say to you that on the day of judgment you will have to explain every careless word you have spoken. 36It’s by your words that you will be either exonerated or condemned.”

38Some of the Pharisees and scribes said to him, “Teacher, we want you to give us some sign to support what you are doing.” 39Jesus replied, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but will receive none – except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40Jonah was in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights, and the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. 41The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment and condemn this generation. They repented when Jonah came and made his proclamation, and something greater than Jonah is here! 42The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from a distant corner of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and something greater than Solomon is here!

43“When an evil spirit leaves someone, it wanders through dry wastelands looking for a place to rest, but finds nothing. 44Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to where I came from.’ But when it returns, it finds the house empty, swept and all in order. 45Then it goes out and finds seven other evil spirits, even more evil than itself, and they go and live there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. That’s how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46While Jesus was speaking to the crowd, his mother and brothers were standing outside, asking to speak to him. 47Someone told him and he responded, 48“Who is my mother? And who are my brothers?” 49He pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants is my brother and sister and mother.”


1-8: The conflict with the Pharisees escalates as they charge Jesus’ disciples with the crime of breaking the laws against labor on the Sabbath. It is clearly nit-picking on their part and Jesus responds rather sternly. First, he points out that the actions of David on a particular occasion provide a precedent for bending the rules. Second, he offers an interpretation that the priests by the very act of presenting sacrifices on the Sabbath are breaking the law, but are nevertheless held innocent — a perhaps necessary exception to the rule, for otherwise sacrifices could not be offered on the very day people are free to bring them. But Jesus also makes some statements that would have been seen as scandalous: “Something greater than the temple is here,” and, “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

9-14: The story of the man with the “withered” hand – probably a reference to what we would call an arthritic condition or perhaps severe carpal tunnel syndrome that prevented the man from being able to open his hand fully — is a continuation of the conflict with the Pharisees over the Sabbath laws. They are using the laws as a fault-finding device; Jesus sees the laws as a guideline that is nevertheless trumped by the greater ethic of “doing good” which he illustrates with the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath. The Pharisees do not like being instructed, and the conflict has gotten now to the point that they begin to plot against Jesus.

15-17: Jesus tries to avoid further conflict by leaving that place, but is followed by crowds. Perhaps in order to de-escalate the rift with the Pharisees he tells the crowds not to advertise his ministrations to them.

18-21: This is the longest Old Testament quote in the gospel. It comes from Isaiah 42:1-3, and verse 21 is a rather significant rewording of Isaiah 42:4. Matthew is using the Isaiah passage as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied from of old.

22-32: The Pharisees, however, persist in their attacks. Jesus heals a man who is thought to be possessed by a demon. The Pharisees interpret the act as proof that he is in league with the ruler of the demonic domain (Beelzebul in verse 24 is clearly another name for Satan in verse 26, but it is interesting that Jesus uses a different name than the one used by the Pharisees). Jesus refutes their charge with the quite logical rejoinder that if Satan is participating in thwarting his own plans his authority is compromised and his kingdom will crumble. The statement Jesus makes about “blasphemy against the Spirit” has received a lot of speculation through the years, but in this context it seems simply to be a condemnation of the Pharisees for their refusal to acknowledge God’s hand in his work.

33-37: Rather than continue to try and avoid the Pharisees, Jesus now turns on them with guns blazing. You can’t say the cure is good but the healer evil, he tells them; either they’re both good, or they’re both evil. He accuses them of being unable to speak well of what he’s doing because they themselves are not capable of doing good things, and labels their accusation a “careless word.”

38-42: When the Pharisees, now allied with the scribes, demand a sign from him, he scoffs at their request. They are evil, therefore their request is motivated by evil. Surely, however, they are inflamed even more when Jesus invokes two examples of Gentiles (the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba) being superior to scribes and Pharisees. His ministry, he says, is greater than the stories of Jonah and Solomon.

43-45: Jesus continues to excoriate the scribes and Pharisees, saying they themselves are like evil spirits.

46-50: Jesus’ mother and brothers show up. In Matthew’s version, Jesus simply uses their appearance as an opportunity to declare his kinship with all who are faithful to God. The new community he is calling forth — identified later more specifically as the Church – is to be a family.


Jesus patiently and systematically challenges the wrong ideas of the Pharisees. We, too, are sometimes guilty of mistakenly assuming how things in the church ought to be done. Patience! Quiet bending to the Spirit’s voice within always results in better understanding of God’s will for us.