Heads of Grain & Holy Bread - Jesus and the Sabbath

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In the Crosshairs

Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t get along well. The trouble began in Capernaum, when He told a crippled man his sins were forgiven (Mk 2:5). This was a performative act; his sins were forgiven as Jesus spoke the words. Poof! The scribes were not pleased. Blasphemy! “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:6). This was the first time Jesus attracted attention from the corridors of power in Jerusalem (cf. Lk 5:17). It wasn’t a good sign.

The situation worsened after Matthew joined Jesus’ group. At a banquet at Matthew’s house, Jesus did not separate Himself from those whom the strict Pharisees considered to be “compromisers” (Mk 2:16). How could an alleged preacher of righteousness be so careless with His personal associations!? Something was not right with this man from Nazareth.

To make matters worse, he did not observe the traditional fasts (Mk 2:18). He shunned the oral tradition which had sprung up around the Old Covenant law. Whatever else this man was, he could not be the Messiah. Surely, Messiah would respect the traditions of the elders. Why do His disciples not fast!? This is a grave error, right up there with projection screens and PowerPoint on Sunday mornings. Surely, this Jesus is a bad man.

This brings us to the next controversy, and to our passage. Jesus is in the Pharisees’ crosshairs. Certain men are watching and waiting; in a modern context, they’d be Facebook and Twitter trolls who run “discernment ministries.” They’re looking for any excuse to strike, to accuse Christ of impiety and blasphemy. They got their wish.

What is Work?

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 said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mark 2:23-24).

The Old Covenant law is clear—you cannot work on the Sabbath (Ex 20:8-11; 34:21; Deut 5:12-15). But, what on earth is “work?” How do you categorize it? Imagine you are an Israelite who has returned from exile. You seek to avoid the terrible mistakes of the past, and be true to the Covenant. You devote yourself to a study of the law, and pledge greater faithfulness to the Lord. The scribes and teachers of the law in your own community have this same zeal, the same sense of purpose.

You remember what Moses wrote about the duties of parents to teach their children to obey the Covenant. You quote the law to your children, “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut 6:25).

So, how do you follow the law and not make the same mistakes your fathers did? Well, one way is to be more careful. One way to do this is to be stricter than the law itself. After all, you can’t cross the line if you don’t come within a mile of it!

Thus, an oral tradition arose as a fence to guard people from violating the law.1 This “fence” eventually overwhelmed the Torah itself, and by Jesus’ day, plucking an ear of grain on the Sabbath could actually be considered “work.”

This is ridiculous, of course. There is no Scripture in the Old Covenant which forbids picking an ear of grain on the Sabbath. But, the oral tradition had by now completely overshadowed the law. Here is a random sampling of activities which were considered “work” on the Sabbath in Jesus’ day:

  • Weaving two threads
  • Sewing two stitches
  • Erasing two letters in order to write two letters
  • Kindling a fire2
  • A woman who puts on eyeshadow3
  • If a man carries a loaf of bread in public, he has violated the Sabbath. However, if two men carry the same loaf and thus distribute the load, no violation has occurred.4

This noble zeal for fidelity to the Covenant had mutated with the passage of time into a deadening, soul-crushing and lifeless legalism. Ezra would not have approved. One scholar wrote,

The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obligated at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded? At every step, at the work of his calling, at prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late in the evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured.5

I doubt it was a shock to Jesus that He ran into this brick wall of blasphemous tradition. He, the eternal Son who had led the Israelites through the Red Sea to Sinai, led the armies of the Lord in conquest of Jericho, and created creation itself, was being lectured about what the true meaning of the Sabbath was! This “fence” interpreted picking a few ears of grain as harvesting, or reaping (cf. Ex 34:21). This bizarre situation is the context for Jesus’ bold claim to deity in vv.27-28. But first, a precept:

Hungry David and the Holy Bread

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, when Abiathar was 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?” (Mark 2:25-26).

Jesus was quoting from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, where David was on the run from Saul. He bid a tearful goodbye to Jonathan, and fled for his life. On the way, he stopped in desperation in Nob, where the tabernacle was. He concocted a convenient story, claiming to be on urgent business for Saul. He was so busy, he claimed, he hadn’t even had time to pack weapons (1 Sam 21:8)!

The high priest, Ahimelech, hems and haws for a moment or two, but offers up the bread of the presence from the outer compartment of the tabernacle. David accepted, for him and his loyal companions. He then vanished into the night, with the bread and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam 21:10).

Now, what on earth does this have to do with anything? Consider the most obvious parallel between these two situations—“on both occasions pious men did something forbidden.”6 There are other parallels, too:

In David’s case, the exigent circumstances apparently justified breaking the letter of the law. Now, consider this:

  • If David (the anointed king) could break the Torah for a legitimate, emergency situation (i.e. the anointed king is fleeing for his life),
  • then how much more justification does Jesus (the Messianic King) have to break the blasphemous oral tradition to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom!?

This is not a justification for picking grain—it is a precedent to establish a violation of the law under exigent circumstances. David broke an actual law. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples had merely violated an oral tradition.

Lord of the Sabbath

Now, the state of set for Jesus’ pronouncement. Some commentators start wringing their hands at this point. They assume Jesus did not actually refer to Himself as the “Son of Man” so early. They theorize v.27 is an independent saying, unconnected to vv.23-26. They conjecture v.28 is not a conclusion which springs from the previous verse.7 This is wrong. This grand finale is a perfect conclusion to the passage.

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” (Mk 2:27-28).

The Sabbath was made for the benefit of mankind.8 Mankind was not made for the benefit of the Sabbath. It is a day for God’s people to remember His mercy, grace, love and kindness (Deut 5:15). God granted His people rest from their labors so they could spend time contemplating Him. It was an ordinance instituted for their own good. God did not want a man to press-gang friends to help him carry a loaf of bread from one house to the next, and he did not intend women to count threads they sewed. This was all wrong. This was missing the point. Orthodoxy had given way to orthopraxy a long, long time ago. The Sabbath was not for God—it was a gracious gift from Him to man.

Jesus now draws a conclusion from all this. He is the Son of Man, the divine figure who stands in the Ancient of Days’ presence, who will be crowned with glory and honor, who will come in power and majesty to rule over all world forever and ever (Dan 7:13-14). As such, He is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the One who has charge, rule, sovereignty and authority over this holy day. He will not be told how to interpret the law. He Himself interprets and fulfills His Father’s law perfectly.

The Son’s Gauntlet

Jesus’ claim is extraordinary. He identified Himself as a divine figure who stands in God’s presence, the very Messiah who will come to rule over the world, whose dominion is everlasting and whose kingdom will never be destroyed. More than that, He claimed to be Lord and Master of the Sabbath day, which was instituted by God. This is either breathtaking blasphemy or an unmistakable claim for deity and equality with the Father, and distinction from Him at the same time.

It is also a gauntlet thrown down in the face of the representatives of an apostate and damnable system of works righteousness, one built on the ashes of the good and glorious Old Covenant law. It was a howitzer which blasted a hole in this satanic “fence,” so the true intent and meaning of the law could be revealed in the Person of the One who came to perfectly obey it for His children’s sake.

Notes

1 For a brief background on the development of the oral tradition, orthopraxy and Jewish racism against Gentiles in the decades after the return from exile, see J. Julius Scott Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 107-179.  

2 This and the preceding are from Jacob Neusner, “Shabbat 7:2,” in The Mishnah (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 187.

3 “Shabbat 10:6.”

4 “Shabbat 10:5.”

5 Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, 5 vols. (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 3:125.    

6 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1794), 117.  

7 See Lane (Mark, 118-120).  

8 The preposition in this phrase (τὸ σάββατον διὰ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐγένετο) is expressing benefaction (“for the benefit of”).  

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