23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
(Mark 2:23-28 NIV)
In today’s story, the tension continues to build as Jesus defies Jewish societal norms. Jesus had already raised eyebrows when He forgave a paralytic’s sins and when His disciples did not participate in the weekly fasts like the Pharisees or John the Baptizer’s disciples.
In today’s text, Jesus has another confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus and His disciples were likely on the Pharisees’ “watch list”. The Pharisees were ultra-legalistic about upholding their oral traditions. They also had the authority (rightly or wrongly) to enforce those traditions as law within Jewish society.
So what was the infraction in today’s story? Jesus’ disciples were, according to the Pharisees’ oral tradition, “working” on the Sabbath by hand-picking grain from a field as they walked along the road.
The Pharisees were quick to point out that Jesus’ disciples had broken God’s commandment of working on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21). What the Pharisees had conveniently overlooked was God’s command that it was acceptable to hand-pick grain and eat it (Deuteronomy 23:25). If Jesus’ disciples had used a tool such as a sickle to harvest the grain, then that constituted work in the Lord’s commands. The Pharisees believed that the commandment to not work on the Sabbath superseded all other commandments, and all human activity was subject to their interpretation of what it meant to “work”.
So why did the Pharisees confront Jesus and not His disciples? Jesus was not picking and eating the grain – it was His disciples doing so. According to the Pharisees, each teacher was responsible and accountable for the actions of his followers (disciples). By confronting Jesus, the Pharisees expected Jesus to command His disciples to stop their “law breaking” activities immediately. This was the warning to Jesus before the Pharisees took action against Jesus and His disciples – their action that could go as far as the death penalty. This “no work on the Sabbath” was strictly enforced; it was a matter of life and death in the Pharisees’ traditions.
So how did Jesus respond? Did He fearfully gather up His disciples, admonish them for their misdeeds, then apologize profusely to the Pharisees and promise that it would never happen again? No – instead, Jesus quotes a Bible story to confront their oral traditions.
Jesus quotes the Bible story from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, where David and his men were fleeing from King Saul. David stopped in the local synagogue to ask the priest for something to eat. The priest had nothing for them, except the bread that was reserved for the priests. The men had been on the run to evade Saul’s fury and unjustified death sentence against David; they had likely not eaten in several days. The priest gave the bread to David and his men as a gift, to feed them and relieve their suffering.
Jesus and His men were likely famished and had not eaten recently, as the crowds constantly followed them and demanded their attention. In the same way as David and his men, Jesus’ disciples were just trying to meet the most basic of all human needs.
Jesus then summarized His point to the Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus was saying that humanity was made first; the Law forbidding work on the Sabbath came after mankind was created. Jesus, as God, created mankind and had also instituted the Sabbath to make life better for humanity, to provide much-needed rest and the space to pause and enjoy the Lord and fellowship with others. The Sabbath was not to be an enslaving set of rules and regulations that sucked the joy out of life; it was never meant to be a burdensome weight around the necks of God’s people.
Jesus closes His argument with the Pharisees: “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus was still using a veiled statement about Himself – He was referring to both the Sabbath being made for mankind, as well as His authority over everything, including the Sabbath.
May we see God’s heart of compassion in Jesus caring for His disciples. May we also see God’s authority over all things, including our following His commands. God’s final say, in David’s example as well as Jesus’ story today – is love, not law.