Lord of the Sabbath: Mark 2:23-28

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then 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.”

Dringhouses: 2nd February 2024

It might seem strange to us that it was perfectly lawful for a hungry traveller to pick corn from the fields if he or she were hungry, provided they didn’t start using a sickle or other equipment to  harvest their lunch (Deuteronomy 23:25) (You and I, and certainly your local farmer, might regard this as theft!). Their actions were called into question not because of their appropriation of a free meal, but  simply because they were doing it on the Sabbath.

The Jewish law had specific rules about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath, and ‘work’ was specifically prohibited. The oral tradition which had elaborated on the law had introduced myriad specific prohibitions. As a rabbi, the Pharisees would demand that Jesus adhere to these rules and regulations.

‘When Jesus began openly to violate the Sabbath traditions, it was like declaring war against the religious establishment.’ (i)

In short, picking grain and removing the husk to eat was specifically not permitted.

‘We see from these verses what extravagent importance is attached to trifles by those who are mere formalists in religion.’ (ii)

Jesus knows that he and his disciples have driven a coach and horses through the restrictions, but he uses Scripture to show that he and his disciples are acting within God’s law.

‘It seems fantastic to us, but to the Jewish Rabbi’s it was a matter of life and death.’ (iii)

David is a revered and honoured King within Judaism, and Jesus points at the Scripture which tells the story of David and his men eating bread which had been placed as a sacrifice in the Tabernacle to Nob and was only to be eaten by the priests. (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The Pharisees were quick to point out that Jesus was in error, although they could not argue that in the case of David, human need was put before the Law. The Sabbath, says Jesus, was created for mankind, not to constrain, but to benefit.

‘Human beings were not created to be the victims and the slaves of the Sabbath rules and regulations, which were in the beginning created to make life fuller and better.’(iv)

Thus far, Jesus is holding his own against the challenge of the Pharisees, but he has yet a point to make. We have seen before Jesus taking the loaded phrase ‘Son of Man’ and applying it to himself (Mark 2:3-12). ‘ In doing so, he made a statement which he now affirms. ‘The Son of Man,’ he says, ‘is Lord, even of the Sabbath.’ (v28). 

Jesus is heralding a time of change. A paradigm shift of perspective in relationship between God and man in which the trappings of the old religion could not constrain the power of the new.

‘Jesus action, and it’s explanation, were a coded messianic claim, a claim that in him the new day was dawning in which even Israel’s God-given laws would be seen in a new light.’ (v)

There can only be one response from the Pharisees and the religious establishment. The extravagant behaviour of this young rabbi is drawing the attention of the people. To them, his claims of divinity are blasphemous and absurd. In short, he is out of control and at risk of undermining their own place and power in society. He has to be dealt with. He has to go!

(i) W. Wiersbe, Be Diligent, p38
(ii)JC Ryle, The Gospel of Mark, p29
(iii) Wm Barclay, New Daily Study Bible, Gospel of Mark, ‘Piety, Real and False’ Loc 1532
(iv) ibid, Loc 1549
(v) NT Wright, Mark for Everyone, p26

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