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MATTHEW - Chapter 12

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Matthew 12

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

3.  Second Period of the Ministry in Galilee and Across its Lake  5, 1 -- 15, 20 (continued)

12, 1-8:  The Disciples Pluck Grain on the Sabbath.  Parallels in Mark 2, 23-28 and Luke 6, 1-5; according to these two Evangelists this is the fourth of the five disputes with the Pharisees before the Sermon on the Mount.  The ripe grain in the field points to a season of the year near the Passover; apparently the second of the four Passovers of our Lord's public ministry.  Here as often Matthew abandons the strict chronological sequence.  This and the following dispute are concerned with the observance of the Sabbath by abstaining from labor.  The Pharisees made much of this point of the Law in their opposition to Jesus.  The Fourth Gospel agrees with the Synoptics in this regard (cf. John 5, 9-18; 7, 22 ff; 9, 14.16).  These controversies concerning the Sabbath show the typical narrow-mindedness of these hypocrites who quibbled over such fine points of the Law and ignored the basic principles of morality (cf. 23, 23 f).    1.  Jesus went through the standing grain: i.e., along a path with fields of ripe grain on each side.  His disciples . . . began to pluck the ears of grain: in itself this was permitted by the Law (cf. Deut. 23, 25).    2.  Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by the Law (cf. Ex. 20, 10).  To safeguard this law, to "put a hedge around it" as the saying was, the Rabbis forbade anything having even the semblance of work on the Sabbath.  Reaping on the Sabbath was indeed specifically mentioned in the Law as illicit (cf. Ex. 34, 21), but Deut. 23, 25 clearly distinguishes the plucking of a handful of grain from reaping with a sickle.    3 f.  First argument of Christ in defense of His disciples: a positive law may rightly be dispensed with in a case of proportionate necessity.  He argues this point by the example of David who, when hungry, ate the sacred bread which he should not otherwise have eaten (cf. 1 Kgs. 21, 6; on the loaves of proposition which only the priests could lawfully eat, cf. Lev. 24, 5-9).    5 f.  Only in Matthew.  Second argument of Christ: the work done by the priests in the temple on the Sabbath was not considered a violation of the sabbatical rest; but He is greater than the temple; therefore the disciples who serve Him on the Sabbath are lawfully dispensed from the Sabbath law.  On the sacrifices which the priests had to offer in the temple on the Sabbath, cf. Num. 28, 9 f.    7.  Only in Matthew.  Third argument: God is more pleased with kindness and charity than with zeal for the Law; proved by quoting Os. 6, 6 (cf. Matt. 9, 13).    8.  Final argument, or the conclusion of all these arguments (cf. "Therefore" in Mark 2, 28): the Messias is the authentic interpreter of God's Law, including the law of the Sabbath.

12, 9-14:  A Man with a Withered Hand.  Parallels in Mark 3, 1-6 and Luke 6, 6-11.  The last of the five disputes with the Pharisees before the Sermon on the Mount.  There is a similar discussion in connection with the cure of the man with dropsy in Luke 14, 1-6; cf. also the case of the stooped woman in Luke 13, 10-16.    9.  And when he had passed on from that place, not necessarily on the same Sabbath as the preceding; Luke says it was on another Sabbath.  Their synagogue: the synagogue of the people here concerned, but the name of the town is not mentioned; perhaps Capharnaum.    10.  A withered hand was one that was in some way shrunk, stunted or crippled; the popular language considered it deprived of its natural juices like a wilted plant.  They asked him: they were Scribes and Pharisees (cf. Luke).  In the other Gospels this question is asked not by these men but by Christ.  However, since our Lord reads their thoughts, (cf. Luke), Matthew summarizes by putting in their mouth the thought that was in their mind.  That they might accuse him: perhaps they had brought this cripple into the synagogue intentionally as a test-case.    11.  The opinions of the Rabbis as recorded in the Talmud differed on this case of an animal that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, but Christ's argument is evidently based on the actual practice at His time.  The same argument is used in Luke 14, 5 except that instead of a sheep Christ speaks of "an ass or an ox."  Matthew is the only Evangelist that has this argument here; the other two have a more general question about doing good on the Sabbath.    12.  An argument a fortiori such as Christ used so often.  The conclusion shows that the specific case of the sheep was adduced as an argument to answer the general question as given in Mark and Luke.    14.  The earliest recorded instance in our Lord's public life of a plot to put Him to death.  The Pharisees evidently tried to trump up a capital charge against Him, such as a flagrant violation of the Sabbath (cf. Ex. 31, 15).

12, 15-21:  The Mercy of Jesus.  Peculiar to Matthew; but a similar account of Christ's miracles in general and of the crowds that followed Him is given before the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 4, 24 f; Mark 3, 7-12; Luke 6, 17-19.    17-21.  In this kindness and meekness of Jesus the Evangelist sees the fulfillment of the words of Isa. 42, 1-4.  This is the first of the famous "Servant of the Lord" hymns in Isaias.  Since St. Matthew gives us the authentic interpretation of it, we may rightly conclude that all these hymns are Messianic even though some of them may not be explicitly cited in the New Testament.  For other references to the Messias as "the Servant of the Lord," cf. Acts 3, 13.26; 4, 27.30; out of respect for our Lord later copyists sometimes changed the word "Servant" into "Son."  The quotation in Matthew follows neither the Hebrew nor the Septuagint text; it is probably based on an Aramaic translation or "Targum" that is otherwise not preserved.    18.  I will put my Spirit upon him: Jesus had God's Holy Spirit from the beginning; the words signify that He would show this forth publicly, or refer to the external manifestation of the Spirit at His baptism.  He will declare judgment to the Gentiles: i.e., He will show the Gentiles the way of justice and holiness.    20a.  A smoking wick is the wick of a lamp that is dimly burning but in danger of going out completely.  This figure and that of the bruised reed signify the slight evidence of good will in morally weak men; far from rejecting such men Christ encourages them to greater efforts.    20b-21.  Despite initial reverses final victory is promised the Messias in His efforts to teach men justice and holiness.  In his name, i.e., in Him, will the Gentiles hope: so also the Septuagint; the Hebrew text reads, "The isles (i.e., the distant lands of the Gentiles) await his teaching."

12, 22-37:  Blasphemy of the Pharisees.  The accusation that Jesus drives out devils only by the power of Beelzebub and the refutation of this calumny (22-32) is paralleled in Mark 3, 22-29 and Luke 11, 14-23; 12, 10.    22-24.  A distinct yet remarkably similar incident is given in Matt. 9, 32-34.  The Pharisees cannot deny the reality or the supernatural character of this cure.  Therefore, in order to counteract the tremendous impression which this miracle makes on the people, they try to use this very miracle against Jesus by claiming that He Himself is possessed by the prince of devils and consequently has such control over the other devils.  According to Mark these Pharisees were "Scribes who had come down from Jerusalem;" probably in a certain official capacity to investigate this Prophet from Nazareth.  This also explains the importance of their diabolical calumny.  Beelzebub: the form "Beelzebul" has far better support in the manuscripts.  But "Beelzebul" cannot be explained satisfactorily as "the lord of dung," or "the lord of the dwelling."  It is merely a corrupted form of the older pronunciation "Beelzebub."  By assimilation the consonants of the last syllable were influenced by those of the first syllable.  In Babylonian the "accuser" in a lawsuit was called the "beeldabab," i.e., "the lord of the word;" the Aramaic borrowed this word in the older form of Aramaic "beeldhebob," which later became "beelzebub."  Therefore this word is the exact Aramaic translation of the Hebrew word "satan" (the accuser) just as the Greek "diabolos" (the devil) also means "the accuser."  In 4 Kgs. 1, 2 the Jews likewise call the god of Accaron "Beelzebub," i.e., Satan.    25 f.  Christ's first argument in refuting this calumny: the absurdity of supposing that Satan would destroy himself.    27.  Christ's second argument: your children, i.e., the disciples of the Scribes, attempt exorcisms (cf. Act 19, 13) and believe that they occasionally succeed with God's help.  Therefore they shall by your judges: i.e., the Scribes' own disciples will condemn their teaching that devils are cast out only by the power of Beelzebub.    28.  The conclusion to the preceding argument.    29.  Christ portrays His victory over Satan in the form of a little parable.  The strong man is Satan; the "stronger than he" (Luke), who binds him is Christ.  On the binding of Satan, cf. Apoc. 20, 2.    30.  The usual interpretation of these words is, "It is impossible for a man to neutral in my regard; he must either be for me or against me."  Essentially the same idea is expressed in Mark 9, 39, but from the opposite viewpoint.  Here however he who is not with me may refer directly only to Satan, i.e., since Satan is not helping me in casting out devils, he must therefore be opposed to me.

31.  Blasphemy is used here in the original sense of the Greek word from which this English word is derived, i.e., "Speaking evil, slander, calumny," whether against God or man, as is clear from the following verse.  The blasphemy against the Spirit is slandering the Spirit of God by saying that it is evil.  But the Spirit of God is essentially good and holy.  Therefore to call good evil and evil good is a complete inversion of all moral values.  Such a sin is of its very nature unforgivable because it denies the very goodness of God, the only source of the forgiving of sins (cf. Rom. 2, 4).  These Scribes were guilty of such a sin, "for they said, 'He has an unclean spirit.'" (Mark 3, 30); i.e., they called the Spirit of God Satan.    32.  To speak a word against the Son of Man is to calumniate Christ in His human nature.  Such a sin is not a deliberate blinding of oneself to the light and therefore of itself not unforgivable, as in the case of the Good Thief.  This verse is often quoted as one of the proofs for the existence of Purgatory, but it is doubtful whether it has such probative force.  For to state negatively that there is a certain sin that will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come does not necessarily imply the positive statement that certain other sins are forgiven in the world to come.  Moreover, Purgatory is not a place where certain sins are forgiven but the place where the temporal punishment, still due to sins already forgiven, is suffered.  However, this text may imply the existence of Purgatory (cf. 2 Mach. 12, 46).    33-37.  Only in Matthew in this context.    33.  The same figure in the Sermon on the Mount (7, 17 ff; Luke 6, 43 ff); but there the thought is: "Be consistent.  If you pretend to be good internally, show this externally by good works."  Or perhaps, "Be logical.  If I produce good works, such as the casting out of devils, then admit that I myself am good."    34.  Brood of vipers: the same epithet for the Pharisees in 3, 7; 23, 33.  A man's expressed thoughts show his mind and character.  He cannot avoid this, for his speech comes forth out of the abundance, literally in Greek "the overflow," of the heart, i.e., of his mind and sentiments.    35.  Luke 6, 45 has the same words in the Sermon on the Mount.  The same thought as the preceding, but here the mind is pictured as the treasure, i.e., the storehouse, of either good or evil things.    36 f.  Every idle word means every seemingly unimportant but consciously spoken word.  Every deliberate human act necessarily has moral value for which we will either be rewarded or punished.

12, 38-45:  The Sign of Jonas.  Parallel in Luke 11, 16.29-32.  Cf. the similar but distinct incident in Matt. 16, 1-4; Mark 8, 11 f.    38.  Certain of the Scribes and Pharisees: according to Luke they were different from those who accused Him of working miracles by the power of Beelzebub; but it was on the same occasion.  It was probably out of sarcasm that these Scribes addressed Him as their equal, "Master," i.e., Rabbi.  "We would see a sign from thee:" not any miracle in general, such as curing the sick, but "a sign from heaven" (Luke), i.e., from the sky, such as Moses wrought in bringing down manna from heaven.  They expected this of the Messias (cf. John 6, 30).    39.  Adulterous generation (cf. also 16, 4; Mark 8, 38) is not to be understood in the literal sense but as equivalent to "perverse generation" (17, 16; Luke 9, 41).  This figure was often used by the Prophets who compared Israel's faithlessness to God's covenant to a wife's infidelity (cf. Os. 2; Ezech. 16, 15 ff; 23).  Cf. also Jas. 4, 4.  Such a generation does not deserve a sign.  Therefore no sign shall be given it but the sign of Jonas the prophet.  The same words in Matt. 16, 4 are paralleled in Mark 8, 12 as "Amen I say to you, a sign shall not be given to this generation."  This agrees with the explanation of the "sign of Jonas" in Luke 11, 30: "For even as Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so will also the Son of Man be to this generation."  The whole point is that Jonas worked no miracle for the Ninevites; they simply believed his preaching.  Just as Solomon gave on "sign" to the queen of the South except the wisdom of his words, so also Jesus will give no sign to the men of His generation except the wisdom of His teaching.  Directly therefore Christ refuses them a sign.    40.  Nevertheless He does give them a sign, but one which because of their perverseness can only be verified too late, the sign of Jonas in the belly of the fish.  All the parallel passages omit these words, but there is no reason to question their authenticity, for the Pharisees knew even before the Crucifixion that Jesus had prophesied His resurrection after three days (cf. 27, 63).  Christ actually rose on the morning of the third day, but according to the Hebrew way of reckoning, any part of a day (of twenty-four hours) at the beginning and at the end of a period of time was considered a whole day.  In Jon. 2, 1, which our Lord quotes literally, the whole or a part of a period of twenty-four hours is called "a day and a night."  Therefore Christ truly fulfilled this prophecy of "three days and three nights" even though He was actually in the tomb only one full day and two nights.  By the heart of the earth is meant not directly the tomb but the netherworld, the abode of the dead, which according to the ideas of the time was situated in the center of the earth.    42.  The queen of the South, the queen of the Sabeans in southern Arabia (cf. 3 Kgs. 10).

43- 45.  The return of the unclean spirit.  Parallel in Luke 11, 24-26.  In the form of a little parable Jesus teaches that this evil generation, for failing to correspond to the grace that He offers, will in the end be much worse than if the grace had not been offered.  Dry places: according to the popular notion, to which our Lord does not hesitate to accommodate Himself, the normal dwelling place of evil spirits is in the desert (cf. Isa. 34, 14; Bar. 4, 35; Tob. 8, 3).  In the application of the parable the soul that has once received God's grace but not fully corresponded with it, is indeed swept and adorned but unoccupied, i.e., God does not possess it fully.  Seven is symbolic, signifying a large number; cf. the seven devils that had gone out of the Magdalene (Luke 8, 2), the seven times in a day to forgive injuries (Luke 17, 4), etc.

12, 46-50:  Jesus and His Brethren.  Parallels in Mark 3, 31-35 and Luke 8, 19-21.  The first two Gospels agree in connecting this event with the Beelzebub dispute; Matthew has a definitely temporal phrase joining the two events.  Luke on the other hand places this event, with no indication of time, after the Sermon in Parables.  The order of the first two Gospels is therefore to be preferred here.    46.  His brethren: this expression also occurs in 13, 55 f; Mark 6, 3 (in both these passages there is mention also of "his sisters"); John 2, 12; 7, 3.5.10; Acts 1, 14; 1 Cor. 9, 5.  Many non-Catholics, reviving the heresy of Helvidius (about 380 A.D.), consider these "brethren and sisters" of Jesus to be the later children of Joseph and Mary.  This is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Faith concerning the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God.  The common opinion in the Eastern Church and also among Protestants regards these "brethren" as the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.  This theory, although held by several Fathers of the Church, is ultimately based on apocryphal gospels.  After being vigorously attacked by St. Jerome, it was no longer held by any Western Father.  It is rightly rejected by Catholics, not only because it offends against the pious sentiment of the Church concerning St. Joseph, but also, because it contradicts the data of the New Testament in regard to at least some of these "brethren."  For among them are James, Jude and Joseph, the sons of Cleophas (or Alpheus) and Mary, the "sister" of the Mother of Jesus (cf. Matt. 13, 55; 27, 56; Mark 6, 3; 15, 40.47; Luke 24, 10; John 19, 25; Gal. 1, 19; Jude 1).  They were therefore not His brothers in the strict sense of the word but His cousins (in what degree of relationship is not quite certain).  In Hebrew the use of the word "brethren" for any blood relatives was common (e.g. in Gen. cp. 13, 8 with 14, 12; 29, 15 with 24, 29).  Seeking to speak to him: we do not know what they wished to tell Him.    48-50.  By these words Jesus showed: (a) that the bond of spiritual relationship, founded on the union of the true children of the heavenly Father, is more important than that of blood relationship; (b) that He Himself carried out His own precepts concerning the demands of the kingdom of God and the demands of family ties (cf. 8, 21 f; 10, 37).  But there is no disrespect shown here to His mother and His brethren.

Confraternity Bible:

The Disciples Pluck Grain  1 At that time Jesus went through the standing grain on the Sabbath; and his disciples being hungry began to pluck ears of grain and to eat.  2 But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, "Thy disciples are doing what is not lawful for them to do on the Sabbath."  3 But he said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he and those with him were hungry? 4 how he entered the house of God, and ate the loaves of proposition which neither he nor those with him could lawfully eat, but only the priests?  5 Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath days the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are guiltless?  6 But I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.  7 But if you knew what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' you would never have condemned the innocent; 8* for the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

A Man with a Withered Hand  9 And when he had passed on from that place he entered their synagogue.  10 And behold, a man with a withered hand was there.  And they asked him, saying, "Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?" that they might accuse him.  11 But he said to them, "What man is there among you who, if he has a single sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?  12 How much better is a man than a sheep!  Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."  13 Then he said to the man, "Stretch forth thy hand."  And he stretched it forth, and it was restored, as sound as the other.  14 But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how they might do away with him.

The Mercy of Jesus  15 Then, knowing this, Jesus withdrew from the place; and many followed him and he cured them all, 16* and warned them not to make him known; 17 that what was spoken through Isaias the prophet might be fulfilled, who said,
18* "Behold, my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased:

I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will declare judgment to the Gentiles. 

19* He will not wrangle, nor cry aloud, neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 

20* A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoking wick he will not quench,

Till he send forth judgment unto victory; 21* and in his name will the Gentiles hope."
Blasphemy of the Pharisees  22 Then there was brought to him a possessed man who was blind and dumb; and he cured him so that he spoke and saw.  23 And all the crowds were amazed, and they said, "Can this be the Son of David?"  24 But the Pharisees, hearing this, said, "This man does not cast out devils except by Beelzebub, the prince of devils."

25 And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?  27 And if I cast out devils by Beelzebub, by whom do your children cast them out?  Therefore they shall be your judges.  28* But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.  29 Or, how can anyone enter the strong man's house, and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?  Then he will plunder his house.  30 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

31 "Therefore I say to you, that every kind of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven to men; but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  32* And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come.  33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for by the fruit the tree is known.  34 You brood of vipers, how can you speak good things, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  35 The good man from his good treasure brings forth good things; and the evil man from his evil treasure brings forth evil things.  36* But I tell you, that of every idle word men speak, they shall give account on the day of judgment.  37 For by thy words thou wilt be justified, and by thy words thou wilt be condemned."

The Sign of Jonas  38 Then certain of the Scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Master, we would see a sign from thee."  39* But he answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, and no sign shall be given it but the sign of Jonas the prophet.  40 For even as Jonas was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  41 The men of Nineve will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a greater than Jonas is here.  42 The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.

43 "But when the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through dry places in search of rest, and finds none.  44 Then he says, 'I will return to my house which I left'; and when he has come to it, he finds the place unoccupied, swept and decorated.  45 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.  So shall it be with this evil generation also."

Jesus and His Brethren  46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brethren were standing outside, seeking to speak to him.  47 And someone said to him, "Behold, thy mother and thy brethren are standing outside, seeking thee."  48 But he answered and said to him who told him, "Who is my mother and who are my brethren?"  49 And stretching forth his hand towards his disciples, he said, "Behold my mother and my brethren!  50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother."


8: Jesus does not abrogate the Sabbath Law, but He teaches that it should be interpreted in a reasonable way.

16: The prohibition against making known His miracles, usually to be accounted for by His desire to avoid the over-excitement which kept people from giving proper attention to His preaching, was probably due in this case to the wish of avoiding conflict with the Pharisees.

18-21: Isa. 42, 1-4.

28: The victory of Jesus over the demons indicated that He was the Messias.  The king was already gathering His people.

32: The sin against the Holy Spirit is to ascribe to the devil the works of the Holy Spirit.  One who thus attacks directly the source of all grace, rejects the source of salvation.

36: An idle word is one which profits neither the speaker nor the hearer.  If the word is merely useless, its utterance is not seriously wrong.

39: Jesus refuses a sign asked for by the incredulous, to be given under conditions fixed by themselves.  He will, however, when the time has come, give them the sign of Jonas, that is, the Resurrection.