One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"
And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?" 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." (Mark 2:23-28)
The Pharisees are out to catch Jesus somehow. That is probably why they were watching Him and His disciples walk through the grainfields. And now, at last, they think they get the break they’ve been waiting for. Jesus’ disciples are snacking on grain. And so they pounce.
“Look at what your disciples are doing Jesus. They are doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath. What kind of Rabbi are you when your disciples so blatantly break the Sabbath? Check mate.”
The logic of the Pharisees’ argument goes something like this.
How would you respond to this argument? We might expect Jesus to respond in terms of their logic.
“You call what they are doing reaping? Come on guys, be serious. Picking a few heads of grain is not really the same thing as taking a sickle to the whole field, now is it?”
In fact, Jesus does something far more significant than that. His response is not simply to falsify the charge of law-breaking, but to show that the whole Pharisaic approach to the Sabbath was fundamentally wrong. He doesn’t just cross out one of the rules from their tradition; He rips their entire tradition to shreds. Let’s see how He does it.
Jesus reminds them of a story about David from the Bible. The story took place in the days when David was a fugitive. King Saul wanted him dead, so David was on the run. He had escaped from Jerusalem and arrived at Nob where the tabernacle was located. He was in great need and so he asked for some bread to eat. The only bread on hand was the holy bread, which God’s law explicitly forbade anyone but the priest from eating. However, on this occasion, the priest gave the holy bread to David and his companions.
Jesus, in telling this story, was using a typical form of rabbinical argument. David was in need and ate the bread of the presence. It was unlawful for David to eat this bread. Yet, nowhere does Scripture condemn him for it. Jesus used this story of David to show that the rigid approach the Pharisees took to the law was wrong, because it just couldn't account for this incident.
Imagine that their approach to the law is a round hole. Their man-made traditions are round pegs fashioned to fit through the round hole of their understanding of the law. It seems to work. The pegs fit. It all makes sense. But this story of David is like a square peg. Jesus purposely smashes it against their round hole to show that it doesn’t fit. Jesus is basically saying, “look guys, your approach to the law doesn’t fit with Scripture. Your round-hole understanding of the Law cannot account for this Biblical story. Therefore your approach is wrong and it has to change. Your whole accusation of law breaking is based on a faulty approach to the Law itself.”
In one foul swoop, Jesus defends his disciples and frees God’s Sabbath command from the Pharisees’ faulty interpretational approach.
What was wrong with their approach? The problem, as we will see, is that it focused on the wrong thing, and consequently turned the whole purpose of the Sabbath on its head.
Jesus continues with these words, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Note that Jesus isn’t doing away with the Sabbath. He is doing away with the Pharisaic approach to the Sabbath, and reestablishing its real purpose. Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath is a gift from God to us. It was made for man. It is supposed to be a blessing. But the Pharisaic approach to the Sabbath turned it into a curse. It became a burden. Instead of the Sabbath being made for us, they made it seem as though we were made for the Sabbath.
Do you obey God’s command to keep the Sabbath? Do you experience the Sabbath as a burden or as a blessing? In what ways do you imitate the Pharisaic approach to the Sabbath in formulating, and/or regulating your obedience by, man-made rules?