PassageThese two passages both have to do with the Sabbath. To start with, Jesus and the disciples are walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath, and while they are walking the disciples are picking some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands (to get the actual grain out of the shell), and eating them. The Pharisees, however, are not happy with this, and ask them why they’re doing something that is unlawful. Jesus answers on their behalf:
And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (verses 3–5 (ESV))I think this conversation puts the religious leaders on high alert, because later on, when Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, they keep a close eye on him, knowing that there is a crippled man (with a “withered” hand) present, and wondering if Jesus is going to “break the Sabbath” again by healing the man. (Maybe “hoping” is better word than “wondering,” because they seem to be itching for a fight.) Jesus knows what they’re thinking, though, and he tackles the issue head-on: he has the man come and stand before him, and then asks the religious leaders, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” He then instructs the man to stretch out his hand, and when he does it’s healed.
The religious leaders aren’t won over by Jesus’ argument, however. Quite the opposite: they’re furious with him, and start to discuss amongst themselves what they might do about him.
ThoughtsWhen it comes to the Sabbath, when the Jews weren’t supposed to do any work, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had some very specific rules to follow, to determine what constituted “work.” To start with, I’m led to believe, their hearts were probably in the right place: I think there was a sincere desire to try to do the right thing. “We’re not supposed to do any work, so we’d better figure out what ‘work’ is!” The problem, I think, evolved over time, as the distinctions between “work” and “not work” got more and more nuanced, and to the point where the religious leaders stopped thinking about the overall commandment from God, but instead focused only on their own rules. In effect, their specific rules—which had originally been intended to help Jews obey God’s commandment—ended up superceding the commandment itself. There are other instances where Jesus points out the inconsistency of their rules; for example, if an ox were to fall into a pit they’d be “allowed,” under their rules, to lift it out, yet if a beggar came to the door they wouldn’t be “allowed” to go out and give them money—the beggar would have to put their hand inside the door, so that the Jewish person wouldn’t have to “break the rules” by opening the door and going out to do it. This is an inconsistency, whereby an animal is considered more valuable than a human—and “valuable” is the right word, because this was a financial consideration: if the ox died in that pit, the owner would be out a good amount of money.
In this particular case, there’s no particular inconsistency that Jesus is pointing out from the Pharisees’ rule; he’s just saying that their rule is only that—a rule—that isn’t binding on a Jew in the same way that the actual commandment is. To underline his point, he points out an actual example in which King David broke a rule, but that, in the circumstances, his hunger was considered to supercede the rule itself. The Pharisees and other religious leaders had no room in their philosophy for such “bending” of the rules.
But if they wouldn’t have been happy about that, they’d have been even less happy about Jesus’ next statement: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” This, to their understanding, would have been straight up blasphemy. (As is so often the case, it would be blasphemy, if anyone other than Jesus had made this claim.) For my thoughts on this, see the previous post on the Sabbath (which I finally posted in anticipation of this post.)
The second story, in which Jesus heals the man’s hand on the Sabbath is kind of a case of an inconsistency with the rules that have formed over time around the Sabbath—i.e. you’re allowed to save your ox, but not allowed to heal a human’s hand—but I don’t think we have to go that far. Jesus’ point, in this case, is much simpler: you’ve created these extra-Scriptural rules on what constitutes “work,” but which is better, to follow your self-imposed rules, or to do good? It’s clear, based on Jesus’ actions, how he would answer that question; it’s equally clear, based on the religious leaders’ reaction to the healing, how they answered it.