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
As Jesus and his disciple were walking on a Sabbath day, the disciples picked a few heads of grain and began eating them. At this point in Jesus’ life, the Pharisees had begun following him, looking for reasons to call him a false prophet. (To see how we are to discern false prophets, see Deuteronomy 13) They wanted to catch Jesus in an act of breaking the laws of YHVH. As they watched Jesus and his disciples on this day, they thought they had found what they were looking for.
In order to understand many of the confrontations that occurred between Jesus and the Pharisees, you really need to have a firm grasp on the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and a decent understanding of the oral traditions of the Jews (Talmud and Midrash). The Torah instructs that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, including work done during harvest time (Exodus 34:21), but it says nothing about picking a few heads of grain to eat as you walk by. The oral traditions of the Jews, however, would say that what Jesus and his disciples were doing was “work.”
The Jews describe their oral traditions as a fence that is set up around the original rule or law to make sure that you do not break that original law on accident (the Talmud calls it a safeguard).
“And erect safeguards for the Law.” Talmud: Aboth 1.1
This Sabbath day incident is a perfect example of a safeguard or fence. The pharisees said that one is not allowed to pick grain at all, and that by picking grain you are in danger of breaking the Sabbath instruction of resting during harvest. The enforcement of “fences” is one of the biggest things that Jesus fought against with the Pharisees. (Mark 7:6-13)
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees accusations is very interesting. The first thing he addresses is not the act of breaking Sabbath, but the hypocrisy that comes from their “fences.”
“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?”
When David ate the shewbread, he was breaking the commandment of YHVH. Not only did he sin in eating the bread, but he also sinned in how he obtained the bread. He lied to the priest, telling him that King Saul, who wanted David murdered, secretly told him to ask the priest for something to eat. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) Unfortunately, the Pharisees refuse to acknowledge David’s sin. They hold such high esteem for David that they insist he never committed a sin.
“Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring…”
Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath, Folio 56a (This is mentioned twice in the same section)
Here Jesus is, obeying the laws of YHVH perfectly in his keeping of the Sabbath, and the Pharisees can’t see this because of their “fence” – their oral traditions. On the other hand, David, who broke so many of the laws of YHVH is said to be “sinless.” Jesus is not saying that what David did makes it ok for him to break the Sabbath. He is saying that the Pharisees are hypocrites, because they ignore the sins of an obviously flawed David, while using their “fences” to indict a perfectly innocent Jesus. Now Jesus goes on to say why he is innocent, while at the same time correcting the Pharisees’ “fence” of oppression.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
What Jesus says here is not a new concept. YHVH said the same thing to the children of Israel while they were in the wilderness of Sin (pronounced seen). They found themselves hungry and without food. In order to build their trust, God provided bread from heaven, or mannah, along with instruction that involved the Sabbath.
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.”
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Exodus 16:22-29
Note that YHVH said He has given you the Sabbath.
Instead of resting on the Sabbath as instructed, the children of Israel chose to trust in their own works to provide for them. They went out into the fields looking for food out of fear that what they had would go bad, when they should have just trusted YHVH enough to obey Him. (Suggested reading: Exodus 16)
The point in both of these stories (the story of Jesus vs. the Pharisees and the story of the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sin) is that YHVH gave us the Sabbath. It is a gift. It is a day to rest from work and from worry. There is no need to worry about providing for ourselves on that day, because we can enjoy resting in the fact that our provision comes from God. Because of the trust we have in YHVH, we are able to obey Him. The Sabbath was made for us; we were not made for it. Jesus and his disciples were not out “looking” for food, or even working to store up food; they were simply enjoying the provisions of YHVH. They were simply accepting the gift YHVH gave us.