SynopsisIn this passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples pick some of the grain to eat (because they’re hungry). The Pharisees see it, and point out to Jesus that the disciples are doing something that’s unlawful on the Sabbath, but instead of arguing the point, Jesus instead answers them by pointing out a couple of Old Testament instances where people broke the Sabbath, without censure from the Scriptures:
- King David once ate the Bread of Presence even though it was against the law. Only the priests were allowed to eat that. (1 Samuel 21:1–6 (ESV) is the passage where David ate the bread; the rule where the bread was to be for Aaron and his descendants is in Leviticus 24:5–9 (ESV) .)
- Just generally, the law on Sabbath rules doesn’t apply to priests, by definition, because they do their work on the Sabbath. (This point was kind of a slap in the face to the Pharisees; Jesus says to them, “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (verse 5 (ESV) ). Can you imagine more of a slap in the face to people who prided themselves on their knowledge of the Scriptures, for Jesus to say to them, “haven’t you read in the Law….”)
These are some examples, but what is Jesus’ point? Is he saying that the Sabbath laws don’t matter? Nope:
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. (verses 6–8 (ESV) , Jesus speaking)
ThoughtsAs mentioned, Jesus is not trying to tell the Pharisees that the Sabbath doesn’t matter (although he may be pointing out some misunderstandings they have about what the Sabbath actually means). He’s not telling his disciples to do whatever they want, and disregard God’s Law. In fact, the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is that he had to lead a sinless life, so we know that Jesus never did anything sinful. And the fact that he had to come in the first place means that there is such a thing as sin, so it does matter when God’s law is violated. Jesus’ point is best summed up with the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (This is from Hosea 6:6 (ESV) , but the ESV cross-reference also mentions Micah 6:6–8 (ESV) .)
When the Lord said that He desired mercy, not sacrifice, did that mean that He no longer cared about His rules and regulations for worship? Not at all! The people He was talking to in Hosea and Micah were “worshipping” Him by following all of His regulations for sacrifice, but they were ignoring the poor, and He told them that He would have preferred them, if they were going to choose one or the other, to take care of the poor and neglect the offerings. (I think it’s obvious that it would have been best for them to have done both.) In some ways the Pharisees were doing the same thing; they were so concerned with the little minute details of the law—including all of the extra regulations they themselves had heaped upon God’s Law, which they seemed to feel were just as important as the rules God Himself had handed down—that they simply didn’t care about the people around them. Especially when it came to the Sabbath; see a very blatant example in John 9 (ESV) , when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees really don’t care that a man has been healed, they’re more concerned with the fact that one of their rules has been broken.
If it was a sin for the disciples to pick the grain on the Sabbath, than Jesus’ point to the Pharisees was that it was more important for them to eat than to obey the Sabbath rules. But I don’t think it was a sin; the Pharisees had their own rules about what it meant to “work” on the Sabbath, and I get the impression that the disciples weren’t really “working,” by Old Testament standards, but had simply broken one of the extra rules the Pharisees had created. I think that’s probably the point of Jesus mentioning the Old Testament references to the Pharisees; they were so worried about defining “work” to the umpteenth degree that they didn’t notice that their rules didn’t really gel with the overall message of the Old Testament Scriptures. (If only the Pharisees had known who they were talking to; even if it had been a sin for the disciples to pick the grain, who would have had to pay for it? Jesus himself, on the cross! If he wasn’t concerned about it, then the Pharisees shouldn’t have been either.)
This passage ends with Jesus telling them that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. The ESV Study Bible says that this means that Jesus, as Messiah, authoritatively interprets every aspect of law. (Which, in a way, seems obvious: If God Himself tells you what a particular passage of Scripture means, you can be sure that that’s what it really means. If someone disagrees with Him, they’re wrong. Not that the Pharisees would have agreed with that.) But they also point out that Jesus is the Sabbath; the Sabbath points to the rest we have in Christ. All of the “work” I could ever do would never earn me into God’s favour; but if I rest in Christ, in the work that He has done, I will be saved.
The Pharisees and Jesus argued about the Sabbath a lot, and keeping this in mind makes those passages make a lot more sense to me. Of course, in a sense, I can’t blame the Pharisees for not fully understanding the true meaning of the Sabbath (even if I can blame them for adding their own regulations to God’s, and then believing that their own regulations were just as binding); but we, who know exactly what is really meant by the Sabbath, can also get legalistic about it, and we have no such excuse.