The Pharisees are looking to discredit Jesus and his ministry at every turn. Who is this obscure rabbi who preaches the coming of the kingdom of heaven, heals the sick, and raises the dead? Jesus is trampling on their territory. He is removing the power and control that the Pharisees have enjoyed for so long right out from underneath them. Something has to give.
So…the Pharisees catch the disciples gathering food during the Sabbath and jump all over this opportunity. They point out to Jesus that his disciples have now broken the law by laboring on the Sabbath. Jesus is once again forced to respond to the Pharisees claims. Not only does he respond, Jesus teaches the Pharisees that their understanding of the Law is inaccurate. They believe that the Law is kept through external obedience. They show little regard for internal faithfulness. But God desires mercy and not legalism. Mercy is inherent in the Law to begin with. It was God’s mercy that brought the Law into existence in order that man might know his sin and need for a Savior. Even the finer points of the law highlight God’s provision and mercy toward his people. For instance, giving the land a Sabbath rest ensures that it will retain its resources and continue producing crops to feed the people.
God is not impressed by legalism. What God desires is faithfulness in intention as displayed in our lives through the act of mercy. However, we should not pit law against mercy. By being merciful, you are keeping the intention of the Law.
Matthew 12:1-14 (ESV)
12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.