When His disciples picked grain

Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5

OVERVIEW

One Sabbath Jesus and His disciples walked through a grain-field.  His disciples, because they were hungry, started to pick the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating.  Some Pharisees saw this and immediately complained to Jesus, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath”.

This is one of five conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, with respect to the Sabbath, that are recorded in the Bible, and the only one not caused by a healing miracle.

It is difficult to imagine how the Jews could consider the mere picking and eating of grain, while one is walking through a grain field, to be “work”, but this indicates how strict the traditions of the elders were.  The purpose of the Sabbath was to provide reprieve from the every-day toil to enjoy a day of rest.  But by disallowing anything that even remotely looks like work; even pleasurable activities such as picking and eating grain, the Sabbath became the opposite of what it was supposed to be.  No longer was it the best day of the week, but it became the worst day of the week.

In defense of His disciples Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat.  By means of this analogy Christ indicated that the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

To defend His disciples Christ secondly referred to the priests who break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  Christ then applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here”.  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple”.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service.

Christ thirdly accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacked the Pharisees.  Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.

Christ fourthly added the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”.  He said this because the Jews, through their traditions, made man the servant of the Sabbath.  They made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man the means to achieve this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit.  The Sabbath is the means and man’s welfare and happiness is the goal.  For that reason human needs are always more important than the Sabbath.  To forbid hungry travelers to pick heads of grain is to pervert the Sabbath’s intended purpose.

Christ concluded, “so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”.  The word “so” means that the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath (v. 28) because the Sabbath was made for man (v. 27).  The title “Son of Man” comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where “One like a Son of Man” receives “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language”.  Putting these thoughts together, He is Lord of the Sabbath because He is Lord over man, while the Sabbath is part of man’s existence. 

Some find in Christ’s claim, to be the Lord of the Sabbath, a statement to the effect that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath.  However, by debating with the Pharisees, on the basis of the Old Testament, what is allowed on the Sabbath, He confirmed it as a binding obligation.  He was here defending His disciples who were accused of breaking the Sabbath.  This would have been an ideal opportunity to say that the Sabbath was or will be abrogated or changed.  But He gave no such indication.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single observation, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principles applies in all circumstances, but His other principle is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath”, who is “greater than the temple”, “is here”.  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work in God’s service, which is work for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

SOMEBODY ELSE’S GRAIN

 

To walk through somebody else’s grain field and eat the grain was an accepted practice in the Jewish society.  The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveller was entitled to do that, on condition that he only uses his hands and not a sickle (Deut. 23:24-25; cf. Lev. 19:9; 23:22; Ruth 2; cf. Mishnah Peah 8, 7).  But to do this on the Sabbath was interpreted by the traditions to be an act of desecration. Not only was picking the heads of grain regarded as reaping, but the rubbing of it in the hands was regarded as threshing.

CHRIST’S RESPONSES

Jesus responded with four or perhaps five statements.  All four statements are provided by Matthew 12, but only the first and the last by Mark 2 and Luke 6.  However, the fourth statement is given more fully in Mark 2 than in the other two gospels:

Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?

Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

HARSH TRADITIONS

As stated above, the Sabbath was created to be the best day of the week, but the extremely harsh traditions, combined with the strict policing by the proud and terrifying religious rulers, made it the worst day of the week.

Many people still today keep the Sabbath; either on Saturday or on Sunday, but make the same mistake.  In their eagerness to ensure that they comply with the law they disallow even pleasurable activities, such as swimming or hiking.  The poor children suffer the most.  The purpose of the Jewish Sabbath was to be a day of joy.  There were some animal sacrifices prescribed for the Sabbath, but it was not prescribed as a day for religious activities.  It was a day to cease the hard work of the other days and to rest and enjoy.  If it is you view that you must keep the Sabbath, please ensure that you keep it as a day to enjoy.

TO DO GOOD

In the healing Sabbath controversies Christ argued that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.  “To do good” implies doing something for somebody else.   In the current instance, since the disciples were picking grains for themselves, He did not use this justification.

DAVID AND HIS MEN

In response Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat (Mat. 12:3-4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4).  This example presents us with an order of priority: easing the hunger of David and his men, in their hour of crisis, was more important than the prescripts with respect to the showbread.  By implication Christ was saying that to ease the hunger of the disciples was more important than the Sabbath.  Generally stated, the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

PRIESTS IN THE TEMPLE

Christ secondly referred to the priests who “break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  (Mat. 12:5-6).  For instance, the priests baked bread (Ex. 16:23; 1 Sam. 21:3-6) to replace the week-old bread of the presence (Lev. 24:8; 1 Chr. 9:32) and performed many other tasks related to the maintenance of the temple and sacrificial system. The same labor in a secular context would not be allowed on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work is allowed on the Sabbath if that work is done in God service of redemption; to provide forgiveness and salvation to sinners.

Christ applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6).  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple” (compare Mat. 12:41, 42).  The temple and its services were mere symbols of Christ and His mission.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service!

This principle must be distinguished from the argument which Jesus used to justify His Sabbath healing miracles in the gospel of John, where He said that, by healing on the Sabbath, He is doing the work of the Father.  Healing is directly doing God’s work to redeem and restore men.  The picking of grain was not directly doing God’s work, but doing other work done while in God’s service.

COMPASSION

Christ thirdly said:

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Mat. 12:7)

Christ here quotes from the prophet Hosea, who rebukes his people for “seeking the Lord . . . with their flocks and herds” (5:6) as if God could be appeased by the many and costly sacrifices (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22), stating that compassion is more important than sacrifices.

With this quote Christ accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacked the Pharisees.

Compassion can be defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; a feeling of sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.  Instead they were quick to condemn the disciples.  As Jesus said at another time:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

To pretend to speak for God and then to judge people harshly is a horrible sin, because it misrepresents God as cruel and harsh, and what sin could be worse?  It drives people away from God and away from the Truth.  Let us rather mimic the One that said to the woman caught in adultery:

“I do not condemn you, either” (John 8:11).

Let us also judge people with compassion.  Christ also said: “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Mat 7:2).  Do you want to be judged the way that you judge other people?

MADE FOR MAN

Christ fourthly added this principle:

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Christ here referred to the creation account, where it is stated that the Sabbath was created to be a blessing (Gen 2:3); in other words, for man’s benefit.  “The Sabbath was made” by God by resting on the seventh day and then by blessing and sanctifying the day.  God was not tired after six days of work.  He did not have to rest.  He rested to set an example to man.  The Sabbath is not merely a reminder that God rested on the seventh day; God rested to create the seventh day.

The Jewish traditions made man the servant of the Sabbath.  It made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man had to ensure this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit; for his welfare and happiness.  Therefore human needs are more important than the Sabbath.  Wearisome rules with respect to how the Sabbath is to be observed, defeats it purpose.

Compassion is a fundamental principle of God’s kingdom, but the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man” provides particular support for Christ’s demand for compassion for the sufferings or misfortunes of others when judging people with respect to what they do in the Sabbath.

LORD OF THE SABBATH

Christ concluded:

So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28; Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5).

Why did Christ find it necessary to say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath”?

Some propose that He said it to indicate that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath, but there is no indication of this in the text.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

It is proposed here that He did not say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath” to say something about the Sabbath, but to say something about Himself.  In the same context He also said that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). that “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father” (Mat 11:27) and that He is “greater than the temple”, “greater than Jonah” and  “greater than Solomon” (Mat. 12:6, 41, 42).  And frequently He identified Himself as the “Son of man”.  This identifies Him as the “One like a Son of Man” who will receive “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language” (Daniel 7:13-14).

CONCLUSION

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single principle, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principles applies in all circumstances, but His other argument is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5), who is “greater than the temple”, “is here” (Mat. 12:6).  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath (Mat. 12:5).  The principle is that work while in God’s service, for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

Sabbath: Table of Contents

Next: Bethesda – John 5

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