Matthew 12:1-8 Did Jesus Authorize Situation Ethics?

By Stan Cox

In this article I have been asked to explain, in its context, Jesus’ defense of his disciples in Matthew 12. The Pharisees had accused them of unlawful activity on the Sabbath. This is a difficult passage, and in misusing it, some are led to dangerous conclusions regarding what God allows in our response to his laws. Among these conclusions is the belief that on occasion, necessity outweighs the precepts of God’s law, and al-lows us to engage in unlawful activity without guilt. I trust you will open your Bible and read the entire passage, in its immediate context, in con-junction with this writer’s explanation of the text.

The Meaning of the Text

A correct understanding of the passage shows that Jesus was not, in fact, indicating that on occasion necessity outweighs precept. What he did was defend his disciples from an unjust attack, while at the same time impugning the motives of their hypocritical accusers. This becomes evident after a careful examination of the text and context.

The book of Matthew testifies to the Messiahship of Jesus. From his birth and childhood, to his resurrection, Matthew attests that Jesus is Lord. When Mary and Mary Magdalene sought him at the tomb, we read the words of an angel, recorded for posterity by Matthew, “He is not here; for He is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (28:6). It is in this light that we look at Jesus’ defense of his disciples in the twelfth chapter.

First, notice what the disciples did. “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (v. 1). In doing this, the disciples were not violating the law of God, but were rather engaging in activity which was allowed under the Law (cf. Deut. 23:25). The only way the Pharisees could charge them with unlawful activity was by binding their traditions regarding the Sabbath day upon the disciples. Jesus’ disciples were in conflict not with the law of God regarding the Sabbath, but rather with the Pharisees tortured and convoluted interpretation of God’s law. Shortly after this occasion, Jesus again condemned the Pharisees for this very thing. Because they were keeping the traditions of the elders, and neglecting the actual commandments of God, he branded them hypocrites (cf. 15:7). “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:8-9). This is just another example of the Pharisees straining at gnats while swallowing camels (cf. Matt. 23:24). Jesus pronounced the disciples as “guiltless” (v. 7) in this matter. They were guiltless, not because “necessity outweighed precept,” but rather because they had done nothing wrong.

Second, notice Jesus’ defense. He began by exposing the Pharisees’ impure motives in condemning the disciples (vv. 3-4). They had an example in their history of a violation of the Sabbath, one they were familiar with. The inconsistency is obvious. If they were so concerned about the supposed violation of the disciples, why were they silent about the obvious unlawful action of David (Jesus termed David’s action in that instance as “not lawful,” v. 4), as recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6? The true motivation of the Pharisees is revealed a few verses later in our text, “Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (12:14).

Next, Jesus annihilated their tortured interpretation of “work” on the Sabbath (vs. 5). He pointed out to them, according to their interpretation of the Sabbath prohibition, even the priests would be guilty. And yet, he pronounced them blameless. They were not blameless because “necessity outweighs precept,” but rather because their actions were in fact lawful. Their actions, as the actions of the disciples, did not violate the God-given limitations of work on the Sabbath day. As such, just as the priests were “blame-less” in performing their service on the Sabbath, the disciples were “guiltless” in plucking heads of grain, and eating on the Sabbath.

Finally, Jesus declared his own authority. “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (v. 6). “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (v. 8). Remember the theme of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is the Messiah. The Pharisees were attempting to discredit Jesus, and failing that to kill him. In their calculating and disingenuous way they were seeking to destroy the One who stood above even their beloved Temple and Sabbath. If the Jews had the proper motivations and understanding of the law of God, they “would not have condemned the guilt-less” (v. 7).

Therefore, a proper exegesis of the text reveals that the condemnation of the disciples’ actions by the Pharisees came not from any lawful basis, but rather sprang from impure and envious hearts. The Pharisees were wrong, not the disciples. The disciples were within the law in their action of plucking and eating. In contrast, the Pharisees stood condemned for their hypocrisy.

The Danger Identified

A few days prior to accepting this assignment, I received in the mail an unsolicited paper, called The Reformer, edited by Buff Scott, Jr. This was fortuitous, as editor Scott in his editorial stated the common false position taken regarding Matthew 12. The following quote, from said editorial, illustrates the danger of misunderstanding Jesus’ defense.

Buff Scott, Jr. does not believe there are no absolute rules governing right and wrong. But he does believe there are occasions when necessity outweighs precept, as Jesus himself indicated in Matthew 12:1-5. He re-minded the Pharisees who objected to him and his disciples picking heads of grain and eating them on the Jewish Sabbath that when David and his men were hungry, they entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful. Unlawful, yes, as Wayne pointed out (Wayne Jackson, in a previous article published in the Christian Courier, 4/95), but necessity outweighed the precept, so the action was permissible. Jesus even pointed out that the priests were innocent when they desecrated the Sabbath by performing temple service [verse 5]. Unlawful, yes, but necessity outweighed the precept” (The Reformer, Nov./Dec. 1995, emphasis his).

I do not personally know Buff Scott, Jr., so I have no idea how he applies his position. However, despite his denials, a consistent application of this point of view will lead to an acceptance of the principle that the goodness or badness of an activity is ultimately dependent upon the situation. Situation ethics is a frontal assault to the concept of lawfulness and absolutes. In contrast, Jesus condemned those who were claiming to do many “wonders” in his name, because they practiced “lawlessness” (cf. Matt. 7:23). Scripture is clear on this point. Any activity that is unlawful, or done without authority, is iniquitous. If unrepented of, such will lead to an eternity separated from our Lord, “Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Ibid.).

Let us consistently apply the principle, “necessity out-weighed the precept, so the action was permissible.” In Matthew 12, the disciples were hungry. If their action of plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath truly constituted unlawful activity as the Pharisees claimed, then simple hunger is sufficient grounds to set aside the commands of God. Who can believe it? Other scenarios show the absurdity of this interpretation of the passage. For example, most would agree that abortion is far more damaging and serious than simple hunger. Does the immoral practice of legal abortion in our age give us sufficient cause to violate the laws of the land in protest? How about to murder a doctor to save a child’s life? Some believe so. How about our children’s well-being? If I could not afford to feed my four children, would that give me sufficient cause . to steal? In that case does necessity outweigh precept? Or how about my kids’ eternal well-being? If we are “losing our kids” as is the common claim, does that give us cause to use the Lord’s money to sponsor recreational activities, change our worship, and appeal to the sensual man in our` worship and work? Such are without authority, but if necessity outweighs precept . . . and on and on. In the end this take on the passage, that in certain situations necessity out-weighs precept so that the action is permissible, destroys the absolutes established by God governing right and wrong.

A hierarchical point of view, which places certain “higher goods” in conflict with certain “lower goods” simply cannot be sustained by Scripture. The Psalmist said, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psa. 119:160). The Bible is the complete, non-conflicting word of God. It is through this medium we find what we need to be “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Concluding Thoughts

The concept of “necessity outweighs precept” is shown to be absurd in its application. It ultimately makes righteousness based on one’s perception of what is “necessary,” rather than on a precept of God. God’s absolute standard becomes a joke. His commandments are reduced to mere suggestions, and anarchy and confusion reign. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” Jesus did not teach situation ethics in Matthew 12. His defense of the disciples stands as a testament to his sovereignty, and his complete accord with and regard for his Father’s will.

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Author: jfm

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