Read Mark 2:23-28.
The Law allowed for people to eat grain from a field as they were walking by it or through it. Anyone who wanted could grab a few handfuls of grain to eat, but they weren’t permitted to harvest without permission. So what Jesus’s disciples are doing isn’t illegal, it was perfectly fine. The problem is that they are doing this on the Sabbath. Harvesting on the Sabbath wasn’t allowed, but the disciples aren’t harvesting, they are eating, which was permitted on the Sabbath. It’s quite possible they were cutting through the field to avoid walking too far and violating the Sabbath customs that way and while they were cutting through the field they ate. Jesus is presented as someone who faithfully upholds the Law, not as someone who forsakes it. In upholding it, he fulfills the Law, and he opposes the way in which the religious leaders like the Pharisees used and manipulated the Law for their own purposes. We’ve seen this in expressions of the church in our day as well. Some groups say if you don’t act like this or do these things or refrain from doing these other things, then you can’t possibly be someone who knows Jesus.
This is similar to what the Pharisees were doing. They thought if you didn’t follow their standards, then you were living the way in which God intended his people to live. Since they were plucking grain out of the field, the Pharisees take issue with Jesus believing him to have violated the Sabbath. The story has the feeling of the police officer who pulls you over for going 2 miles over the speed limit downhill. It creates such a frustration in you that you can’t believe these guys. I mean really, you think that because we were eating, we were violating God’s command to observe the Sabbath day?
In verse 24 the Pharisees don’t say why what they are doing is unlawful, they simply declare it. And Jesus doesn’t even bother to argue with them. He simply asks what they think of a story from 1 Samuel 21 were David eats bread that only priests were allowed to eat. David was fleeing Saul and came to the place where the tabernacle was set up. He needed provisions and there was no food available. So he made the priest give him bread for him and his men even though the bread was the sacrificial bread on the altar.
Jesus does two things here. First, he challenged the Pharisees from a place in the Bible where technically, one might say David violated the Law. But it was a matter of life and death for David and his men, so the Law was suspended. Also David was able to suspend custom because he was King. The second thing Jesus does here in verse 25 is compare himself with David. Jesus is able to suspend custom because he is King, just like David. Jesus was the one who gave the Law, and he had authority over the Sabbath because he had invented and instituted the Sabbath.
Then, in verse 27, Jesus confronts the Pharisees in the way they are observing the Sabbath. He says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” In other words, God commanded rest on the Sabbath because Man needed it. The Sabbath was instituted to keep an orderly society and preserve health. Along with the Sabbath, there were rules about your servants and animals not working either. There were also Sabbath laws that applied to debt and to land. Crop rotation was a Sabbath Law from Leviticus. These Sabbath rules were given to help God’s people, not to restrict them. The Pharisees had lost this at some point in their zeal. Israel is known to have practiced the weekly Sabbath, but the rules related to debt forgiveness and an application of the Sabbath called the year of Jubilee from Leviticus 25 were never observed.
The Sabbath was a good thing. But, the Pharisees had become so concerned with making sure no one violated the Sabbath, they themselves had forgotten to observe its purpose. They were not resting. They were not worshipping. There is an important point we learn about the Sabbath from this passage: When the negative overwhelms the positive in the Sabbath, something important has been lost.
Jesus understands this and sets the Pharisees straight. He says in verse 28 the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. This is the first use of “Lord” by Mark. It refers to authority. Jesus’ authority is superior to the Pharisees, and even to the law of the Sabbath because he is Lord. Rather than debate with the Pharisees as to what activities you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, Jesus calls their attention to the purpose of the Sabbath and to his own authority over it.
This is important for us to understand when we read any of the commands of Scripture. Jesus gives us the commands of his word for our good. Not to restrict us or to withhold good things from us. We read, forgive one another, serve one another, be kind to one another because this is a way teaching us what the eternal kind of life looks like. The commands he gives in the Bible can be summed up in the great command: Love God and Love People. It’s not a matter of earning God’s favor by obeying, it’s a matter of Loving God in the manner in which he shows us in his commands. This is what it looks like to live out the Gospel.
Jesus instructs us about anger, lust, and greed to show us qualities that should not be present in the lives of those who follow him. Jesus gives commands to follow that do not have loopholes. You either follow them or you don’t, you can’t “technically” love God and people, either you do or you don’t.
The commands of scripture are like guard rails on a road (thanks to N.T. Wright for this illustration). They help to keep you going the right direction, but it’s better to use your steering wheel. They will keep you out of the ditch, but you’re gonna get banged up if you keep bouncing off of them. Jesus’ commands are for our good. They are boundaries to keep our hearts in check and devoted to him. The Pharisees didn’t understand this about the Sabbath. If we love God and people we will obey the commands of Scripture. Following the commands is legalism. Obeying the commands as a means to following Jesus is the way the Gospel works. It’s difficult to not confuse the two. We will spend our lives sorting it out. But the commands are for our good and to define the boundaries of a Gospel driven life. Focusing on the commands causes us to miss the point. We are to focus on Jesus. We don’t worship the commands, we worship Him. The commands are the guard rails, but we drive on the road called Loving God and loving people. The Pharisees and other groups lost this somewhere as their zeal drove them to define acceptable behaviors on the Sabbath.
The worst tragedy is that they were too concerned for other people’s morality and not concerned enough for the darkness of their own hearts, a darkness that caused them to miss their Messiah. We should guard our hearts in such a way that we don’t fall into similar tragedy.