23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 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: 26 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?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:23-28 ESV
The disciples of John had come to Jesus, wanting to know why He and His disciples didn’t follow their lead and keep the fast days appointed by the Pharisees. Their question has a certain sense of superiority about it because the brand of Judaism under which they were raised placed a heavy emphasis on religious performance. In a sense, the practice of one’s faith had become competitive rather than contemplative. It had become more about outward appearances than the inner disposition of the heart.
That is why Jesus dedicated a large portion of His sermon on the mount addressing the hypocrisy associated with a performance-based religion.
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:1-2 NLT
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” – Matthew 6:5 NLT
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.” – Matthew 6:16 NLT
Jesus had come to free the people from this dead-end existence of religious ritualism and rule-keeping. Not long after delivering His sermon on the mount, Jesus had issued what has come to be known as His Great Invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV).
Jesus was offering rest to those who were worn out by the constant pressure to measure up and keep up with all the rules, regulations, rituals, and rites associated with their religion. It was a non-stop and never-ending treadmill of existence based on effort and earning. But Jesus had come to offer something far better: rest for their souls (Matthew 11:29).
Which brings us to today’s passage. The scene is a wheat field somewhere in Galilee. Mark describes Jesus and His disciples taking a short-cut through the field and as they did, the disciples were casually plucking off the heads of grain and eating them as a snack. They were not doing anything illegal because the Mosaic Law had made allowances for such behavior.
“When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, but you must not carry any away in a basket. And when you enter your neighbor’s field of grain, you may pluck the heads of grain with your hand, but you must not harvest it with a sickle.” – Deuteronomy 23:24-25 NLT
But as Mark reveals, the problem wasn’t what they were doing, it was when they were doing it. It was the Sabbath. And there were all kinds of rules associated with this particular day of the week. God had originally established the Sabbath as a day of rest and had included its observance as part of the Ten Commandments.
“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” – Exodus 20:8-10 NLT
And God had provided the people of Israel with the rationale behind His setting apart of this one day above all the other days of the week.
“For in six days the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.” – Exodus 20:11 NLT
It was to be a day of commemoration, on which the people were to set aside all their normal daily activities so that they might recall what God had done on their behalf. He was the Creator-God, who made the universe and all that it contained, including them. Observing the Sabbath was intended to remind them of their complete dependence upon God. Their human effort was of no real value. Their very existence was totally dependent upon God and by resting on the seventh day, they were placing all their hope in Him. He would meet their needs. And God had illustrated this principle to the people of Israel long before He set apart the seventh day as holy.
When the Israelites had been making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, God had graciously provided them with “bread from heaven.”
“Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” – Exodus 16:4-5 ESV
This bread from heaven (manna), was to collected daily, but on the sixth day, they were to collect enough to meet their needs for two days. On the seventh day, they were to “rest” from their gathering of manna. God had provided all that they needed.
The Sabbath was to have been a reminder of God’s provision for all their needs. But over time, the religious leaders of Israel had managed to turn the Sabbath into a rule-laden, performance-driven day where everything was measured by human effort. They had transformed the God-ordained mandate to rest into a form of work. And the religious leaders had created a litany of man-made laws that were used to measure the peoples’ observance of this day of rest. It had become all about their ability to keep all the laws that had been placed on this one particular day.
According to the Mishnah (the oral law of Israel), there were 39 different categories of laws associated with the keeping of the Sabbath. They included laws concerning carrying, burning, cooking, washing, harvesting, and threshing. According to this oral law, a Jew was forbidden to light a candle on the Sabbath but could hire a Gentile to do so. It was also considered Sabbath-breaking to gaze at one’s image in a mirror. So, this day of rest had actually become a day of wearisome and burdensome rule-keeping.
So, when the Pharisees observed Jesus’ disciples plucking wheat, they condemned them for “reaping” on the Sabbath. And they confronted Jesus for allowing His disciples to violate their oral laws.
“Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?” – Mark 2:24 NLT
And Jesus, knowing these men prided themselves on their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, used a story contained in the writings of Samuel, to justify the actions of His disciples (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Jesus recounts how David, who was on the run from King Saul, had arrived at the town of Nob and asked the high priest to provide food for him and his soldiers. The only bread available was “the holy bread—the Bread of the Presence that was placed before the Lord in the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 21:6 ESV).
According to the Mosaic Law, this bread was reserved for the priests alone. Yet, Jesus points out that when David “was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him…entered the house of God…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” (Mark 2:25-26 ESV). In doing so, David was actually violating the law, but in this case, it was acceptable because David was the Lord’s anointed. David had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel. He was to be the God-ordained replacement for the disobedient and disappointing King Saul.
And Jesus points out a major flaw in their understanding of the Sabbath.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27 ESV
God had set apart the Sabbath as a reminder to the people of Israel that He was their provider. He would care for them. It was to be the day on which they rested from all their vain efforts at self-provision and relied completely on the One who made the universe and all it contains. God had allowed the feeding of David and his men because David was the Lord’s anointed. The physical needs of David had taken precedence over the laws concerning the holy bread.
And Jesus points out to the Pharisees that he, as the Son of Man, was “lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28 ESV). As God’s anointed, Jesus had the full authority to allow the behavior of His disciples. He was placing their well-being above the oral law of the Pharisees. God had made the Sabbath and, as the Son of God, Jesus had every right to do what He deemed to be holy and acceptable on the Sabbath.
Jesus had come to bring rest to the weary and to remove the burden of performance and religious rule-keeping. For the average Jew, the Sabbath had become a burdensome and tiring 24 hours marked by constant vigilance and fear of violating the rules. There was no rest. But Jesus had come to change all that.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.