Matthew 12:2

ESV But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
NIV When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, 'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.'
NASB Now when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, 'Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath!'
CSB When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "See, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath."
NLT But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, 'Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.'
KJV But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.

What does Matthew 12:2 mean?

Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field of grain. The hungry disciples begin to pluck heads from the grain by hand and eat them. This was not theft; it was allowed by the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 23:24–25). This does not spare them from the wrath of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a group of religious leaders in Israel with great authority over the daily lives of the people. They were famous for their strict interpretation of the Law. In order to avoid breaking the laws given by Moses, their scholars created a series of additional rules and interpretations. Jesus was probably referring to those added-on restrictions when He spoke to those who were weary and weighed down in the previous verses (Matthew 11:28–30).

It's not clear how these Pharisees saw Jesus' disciples plucking and eating heads of grain while walking through a field. It might have been pure chance or they may have been following Jesus in hopes of catching Him doing something unlawful. Either way, they seem to see this moment as an opportunity.

The Pharisees accuse Jesus by saying His disciples were doing something unlawful: working on the Sabbath. The fourth of the ten commandments given to Moses demanded that the people of Israel "shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Exodus 20:10–11).

According to the ultra-legalistic view of the Pharisees, plucking the heads from grain in order to eat them qualified as work. In fact, they defined it as "reaping" a crop, which was one of the 39 forms of work specifically declared off limits by the religious leaders who interpreted the Jewish Scriptures.

To modern readers, this level of paranoia sounds laughable. On one hand, however, religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees had a difficult job: figuring out exactly how to apply the commands of the law of Moses. On the other hand, their attempts to interpret the law gradually became a form of law, itself. Over time, their rules became more restrictive, and their interpretations were elevated to the same authority as the literal words of God. Often, this came at great cost to the spirit of the original text. This was a major point of Jesus' criticism of these men.
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