It seemed that everywhere Jesus went, the religious leaders of His day were watching Him to see if some fault could be found. Because they rejected Jesus’ teachings as “unorthodox,” they were particularly interested in discrediting Him as an opponent of the law.
Ironically, many who today claim to follow Jesus continue to make the scribes’ and Pharisees’ accusation—that Jesus broke, circumvented, or did away with His Father’s law. They sometimes point to Mark 2:23–28: “Now it happened that He went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” (vv. 23–24).
A hungry person can get nourishment by picking ripe heads of grain, rubbing them between the hands to remove the husks, and eating the grains that remain. This was a common practice in Jesus’ time, and if you may have done this yourself if you live in a grain-producing area today.
The Pharisees were not accusing the disciples of theft—it was legal for a passerby to take the grain he could eat on the spot, as long as he did not harvest a quantity for later consumption or sale. “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25).
Plucking Is Not Harvesting
Despite Deuteronomy 23:5, the Pharisees accused the disciples of harvesting on the Sabbath—at least, as they defined harvesting. In the law God gave Moses—called the Torah or Pentateuch and contained in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—harvesting on the Sabbath is indeed forbidden. “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest” (Exodus 34:21). However, minor preparation and serving of food is permitted on the Sabbath.
How, then, did the scribes and Pharisees come to accuse the disciples of harvesting—working—on the Sabbath?
Around the time of Ezra, after the tribe of Judah returned from the Babylonian captivity, the priesthood had an extensive oral tradition that interpreted the Torah. This oral rabbinical tradition—later codified as the Mishna—was regarded as authoritative, and to break a point of this interpretation was considered the same as breaking a specific law stated in the Torah, such as the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. Exodus 20:8–11 states this commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Tradition Is Not Law
But what is work? The Mishna, which comes from the rabbinical oral tradition of Jesus’ day, lists “forty less one tasks that it considers “work”—a violation of the Sabbath—for a Jew.
The list includes the agricultural activities of threshing and winnowing—the removal of husks from heads of grain and separating the resulting chaff from the grains (Mishna, Shabbath). Remember that to the scribes and Pharisees, a violation of their oral tradition about a law was equivalent to breaking the law itself. Therefore, the Pharisees watching Jesus’ disciples picking and rubbing a few heads of grain said, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”—even though such activity is not specifically proscribed or defined as harvesting in the Pentateuch.
It is interesting that not all ancient Jewish authorities agreed with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. The writers of the Talmud stated that one could pluck and eat on the Sabbath if he only rubbed the grain with his fingertips and not his whole hand. Another authority, Rabbi Judah ben El’ai, said that the same act could be done if a utensil were not involved.
The Pharisees jealously guarded their role as interpreters of the law, and vigorously resisted disagreement. But Jesus—the great Lawgiver in the flesh—knew that their reasoning was sometimes wrong. All of Jesus’ clashes with the scribes and Pharisees regarding the Sabbath were over demonstrable mistakes in their oral tradition about the Torah. In each case, Jesus went to Scripture to teach what was actually intended by the law, and in doing so affirmed and magnified the Sabbath commandment.
Jesus never said it is permissible to break the law as it was given to Moses, and would never have done so Himself. Many commentators erroneously assume that Jesus and the Pharisees were disagreeing about the validity of the Sabbath commandment as given in the Torah—but, in fact, they were disagreeing about a portion of the rabbinical oral tradition that became the Mishna. In showing the Pharisees a correct interpretation of a particular matter regarding the Sabbath, Jesus was not undermining or negating the Sabbath—He was affirming it.
The Pharisees Made an Incorrect Assumption
The Pharisees who accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath harvesting law had made an erroneous assumption. Because they saw divine law primarily as a system of limitations, they assumed that the most restrictive interpretation of a law was the most righteous, so they sought ever-finer degrees of limitation—sometimes losing sight of the law’s intent.
But a person’s life does not consist of what he or she does not do. The Apostle Paul wrote that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20), and Jesus certainly taught repentance from sin (Mark 1:15). He also taught His disciples to live a repentant life, which is a whole way of living—doing what is right in God’s sight. The Pharisees needed to understand God’s priorities in their Sabbath observance.
When the Pharisees saw the disciples picking heads of grain, they could have interpreted the law mercifully, seeing hungry men preparing and eating. Instead, they chose to see the law in its most limiting sense, forbidding harvesting and winnowing. Was their traditional interpretation what God would have wanted? Jesus used a scriptural precedent to show that they were wrong:
But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar [son of Ahimelech] the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:25–28).
David Did Not Break God’s Law Either
Many believe that Jesus was asserting His right to break the Sabbath if He wanted to—and that, by extension, His disciples also could—or that He was somehow doing away with one of the Ten Commandments. But a brief look at the actual scriptural account to which Jesus referred reveals His actual intent:
Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?”
So David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.”
And the priest answered David and said, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.”
Then David answered the priest, and said to him, “Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.”
So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away (1 Samuel 21:1–6).
Jesus acknowledged to the Pharisees that it is unlawful for an unsanctified person to eat of the showbread at the tabernacle of God. And it was true that, normally, only the priests were sanctified and ceremonially fit to eat it. But why did the High Priest ask David whether any of the men had lain with women in the last three days? Only one incident in the Bible connects three days of celibacy with ceremonial sanctification for non-priests. Ahimelech was going all the way back to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai for a lawful way to be merciful to the hungry men. “So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives….’ And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:14–15, 17).
In this manner, God allowed the congregation to become ceremonially sanctified so that they could come before Him and hear the commandments spoken.
Jesus Magnified and Affirmed the Sabbath
The High Priest did not tell David and his men that they could do something unlawful. He made a lawful ruling based on an ancient precedent set by God through Moses, and in doing so exercised mercy on the hungry—perhaps starving—men. This ruling allowed the men to eat, because they were ceremonially sanctified through their three-day abstinence. Even a priest had to be ceremonially sanctified to eat the showbread lawfully, although this sanctification was done differently.
The High Priest could have easily taken the more restrictive view, but he understood that this would not have been the most righteous approach. Notice also that David seems immediately to recognize Ahimelech’s reference, so it is possible that the ruling about three days of abstinence was an existing oral tradition of which David was aware.
Under other circumstances, the actions of David, his men, and the High Priest would have been unlawful—but Jesus was pointing out that David’s actions were not unlawful in this case. Some say that Jesus justified His disciples’ breaking the law because He thought David broke the law—but, in fact, Jesus mentioned the incident with the showbread because the actions of both David and the disciples were lawful and righteous.
In the parallel account given in Matthew 12, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and said, “But 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 even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7–8).
Jesus showed the Pharisees that their traditional interpretation of the Torah in this matter was incorrect, and for His ruling He cited David’s High Priest, who cited Moses, who quoted God. Since we know that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, Jesus was, in effect, citing Himself. He is indeed the Lord of the Sabbath, and having made it for mankind, it is His right to interpret it for mankind. In doing so, He magnified and affirmed the Sabbath.