SynopsisIn this passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields one Sabbath, and the disciples are plucking some of the heads of grain as they go. The Pharisees see this and question Jesus about it, saying that His disciples are doing something which is “not lawful on the Sabbath” (verse 24 (ESV)).
However, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of the account in 1 Samuel 21:1–6 (ESV), in which David and his men ate some of the “bread of the Presence”—that is, bread which was only supposed to be eaten by the priests, and even then was only supposed to be eaten in a holy place. Normally it would be against the rules for David and his men to eat this bread, but because of their hunger an exception seems to have been made for them, and the account in 1 Samuel doesn’t seem to indicate that the LORD was in any way displeased about this.
Jesus then sums up this story for the Pharisees:
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (verses 27–28 (ESV))
ThoughtsI just finished writing on this blog that I’m putting off my post about the Sabbath because I’m trying to figure out some stuff regarding “Covenant Theology” vs. “New Covenant Theology,” and then the second post I do happens to be about the Sabbath. Oy vey.
The first thing to note when reading this passage is that it is by no means clear that what the disciples are doing in this instance was actually against Jewish law; Jewish law forbade doing “work” on the Sabbath, but in trying to determine what constitutes “work” the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had come up with all kinds of rules, disallowing people from doing all kinds of things. (An example I remember is that if someone came to your house begging and stuck their hands inside your door you could give them some money, but if you reached your hands outside the door to give them money it would count as “work.”) So although they claim that plucking heads of grain constitutes work, it doesn’t mean it was actually work. Ironically enough, the one who would have been best equipped to make this determination was Jesus himself—if you want a good interpretation of God’s Law, the best person to ask is God!
But this is not where Jesus takes the conversation. He doesn’t bother trying to play the game according to the Pharisees’ rules, but instead ignores their legalities and gets to the heart of the matter. As the example with David and his men illustrates, sometimes things are more important than the rules—and oh, how that would have driven the Pharisees crazy, and probably even drives some modern-day Christians crazy today. It would have been so much easier for everyone involved—the Pharisees and the modern-day Christian Bible readers—if Jesus had just taken some time to break it down for the Pharisees: “Look, here’s how it works: These sixteen activities [or sixteen hundred, or sixteen thousand…] are considered ‘work,’ and shouldn’t be performed on the Sabbath, and everything else is cool.” Instead, Jesus went deeper and looked at the reason for the rule, rather than just the rule itself.
The reason we (the royal “we”) would have preferred Jesus to just break it down for us, and tell us what constitutes “work” and what doesn’t, is that it would be easier that way. It’s too messy to say that something might or might not be considered breaking the Sabbath, depending on the larger issues at play. Was it a sin for anyone in the Old Testament Jewish law to eat the bread of the Presence? Normally yes, and there weren’t any exceptions written into the Law saying that in some circumstances it would be okay, yet it still seemed to be okay for David and his men to eat it, because their hunger and need seem to have superseded the law. What do you do with that? What did the Pharisees do with that? How do you adhere to the Law when it’s not always clear what constitutes adherence?
But that’s just it. Jesus’ point isn’t about adherence; he’s not talking about how to obey the Sabbath, he’s more worried about what the Sabbath means. The Sabbath is rest from work; in the New Testament context, we see that as meaning rest from spiritual work—rest from trying to earn your way into salvation through obeying the Law (which is impossible), and instead resting in Jesus’ work. Jesus is our Sabbath. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is “lord of the Sabbath” it probably got them thinking he was blaspheming, but what they didn’t realize is that he was actually making an understatement. The Sabbath was instituted because of Him. (We could perhaps even say that He Himself instituted it, but I don’t want to get into trying to split divisions of responsibility within the Trinity; I’d be getting way out of my depth…) The Pharisees were interested in rules and regulations, and not so much interested in worshipping God.
In a sense this passage continues on from the last one; in that passage Jesus started to explain that the very nature of worshipping God has changed, that it’s no longer about rules it’s about Him [Jesus], and in this passage we see something very similar. (I should say: it never was just about following rules, but I’m speaking loosely here.)