Jesus and Food – Picking Grain on the Sabbath

Jesus and Food – Picking Grain on the Sabbath

Jesus and Food – Picking Grain on the Sabbath.

“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: How he entered the House of God and ate the holy bread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the Temple violate the Sabbath, and yet are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the Temple. 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 of the Sabbath.'” (Matthew 12:1-8; also refer to Mark 2:23 and Luke 6:1-5).

The correct observance of the Sabbath was a major sticking point between the Pharisees and Jesus. It was an ongoing controversy and source of disagreement between them. The Pharisees tended to be rigid in their rules regarding Sabbath. They designed 39 categories of activities which were outlawed during the Sabbath day, and they could be not only petty but also mean-spirited. Those religious authorities were highly technical on what was forbidden, and the result is that, instead of a day of rest, remembrance and worship, the Sabbath day turned out to be a burden on the people. Jesus, though, advocated for a more humanitarian Sabbath, in which human need was a higher priority than whatever manmade regulations there might be.

The Hebrew Bible was full of examples of what was called “blameless violations of the Sabbath.” Jesus mentioned two here… Once when David and his men were on the run and during the Sabbath day they were allowed to eat some of the holy bread intended for the priests. The high priest determined that since these men were hungry, the merciful thing to do was to allow them to eat that bread. The other example is the fact that the priests at the Temple did a lot of work with all that sacrificing on the Sabbath day, and it was not considered a violation of Sabbath rules. As Jesus said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).  In other words, the Sabbath was made for the sake of the people, and not people for the sake of Sabbath. The Sabbath was made to serve us, we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. An old rabbinic saying is, “Shabbat is committed into your hands, not you into its hands.” Jesus reinforced this idea time and again in the Gospels.

The Pharisees in this situation were pointing to the law against harvesting on the Sabbath. As usual, Jesus calls for discernment. This was clearly not a violation of the Sabbath, since they were not harvesting for their own profit, which would have been considered work. They were eating the grain to meet a felt human need, because they were simply hungry. Also, they were not stealing in any way from the farmer who owns the field, since the law allows for the edges of any field to be unharvested in order to feed the traveler and the poor. So the Pharisees were being unnecessarily picky and technical in this incident with Jesus. Jesus used this moment between His disciples and the Pharisees as a teachable moment, to school the Pharisees on the proper application of the law, and to enlighten the disciples as Jesus continues to reveal the spirit behind the law. Jesus was never shy about important principles regarding Scripture, and so his objection here to the Pharisees is no surprise.