Can you see the forest through the trees?
A group of guys were on a camping trip. They went hiking, and got lost. They were looking for a forest where they had camped. One of them turned to the group and said “Hey, can anyone see the forest?” One in the group replied “Well it would be a lot easier to see without all of the trees!”
This is a pretty common saying…can’t see the forest through the trees. The use of the phrase implies that someone is so caught up in the details, that they can’t see the big picture. This was the situation that Jesus found himself in, in Matthew 12:1-14.
The set up: Jesus and the apostles were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. They were hungry, so they picked some grain and ate.
The problem: According to the 4th commandment, they were to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Because God made the world in 6 days, and rested on the 7th…we are supposed to as well.
The reaction: In their zeal to try and do what is right (keep the law), the Pharisees had built a practical buffer around the law were they placed rules around the law to attempt to prevent accidental violation of the law. They did this because they had learned the severe consequences of ignoring God’s laws (through the exile). They were irritated with Jesus for not keeping their stringent rules or the letter of the law.
The response: Jesus asks the Pharisees to see the forest through the trees – to see the big picture, or to observe the spirit (intent) of the law rather than the strict letter of the law.
Upon being questioned by the Pharisees Jesus drew a couple of comparisons to the Old Testament. He concluded his response with a quote of Hosea 6:6; “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Jesus had used this phrase before (Matthew 9:13). When Jesus summarized the law in Matthew 22:37-40 He basically told them “Love God and Love People” – in other words BE Loving… BE Merciful. The law was a set of guidelines to help people figure out how to be and act in loving and merciful ways. The Pharisees were totally missing that point. Jesus went on to illustrate this at the temple by healing a man with a withered hand. It wasn’t enough that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath day (viewed as work by the Pharisees), but he also made a point to ask the man to extend his hand to be healed (this also could have been viewed as work). This time Jesus was painting a picture for them. He asked them which one of you would not go help your sheep if it fell into a pit? This was a practical illustration of giving mercy, and not sacrifice that they would put into effect because it would ultimately benefit them. Jesus exposed their heart attitude that they didn’t care so much about loving God and loving other People… they were just trying to stay out of “trouble” and look good.
The 4th commandment is really an interesting commandment because of what happens when you discuss it. You can be in a group talking about how we can honor this commandment and within 10 minutes you are so far into what is allowed that you forget that Christ wants us to be merciful rather than sacrificial… he wants us to see the forest… Now don’t get me wrong, it helps us to see the trees (look at the details) in most cases. But, it is when we are so focused on the trees, and we forget the big picture, that’s when problems begin to occur.
In our small group tonight it took 10 minutes before we were diving into the minutia of the 4th commandment and asking questions like, “are we enabling the breaking of the 4th commandment by going to the store and forcing people to work on Sunday?” After a few minutes of discussion we looked at Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” and moved on. But the questions still remain – God created a 7 day week for a reason (and studies have shown that people are most healthy productive when they take 1-2 days off each week). There’s so many things to consider surrounding the practical application and implications of a “Sabbath” day (like Hebrews 10:24-25, what day it should be and whether it is even applicable to the Church age or strictly an OT commandment specifically to Israel). While our group discussed this commandment for only an hour, the Israelites had discussed it for over 1000 years… You can imagine how far down the rabbit hole they had gone with the 4th commandment!! This is why Jesus’ words and actions were so upsetting to the religious establishment of the time!
As alluded to before, the problem with the Pharisees wasn’t that they were being “disobedient” to God… they had a Heart problem and jacked up motivations. Their stance can be summed up in one word: Legalism. None of us think we are susceptible to that, but we really are… AND , We have to avoid it AT ALL COSTS… because it leads us to being so consumed with the “law” that we forget the mercy and grace of God and how He desires us to be loving and merciful to the people around us. After all isn’t Loving God and Loving others the point?