At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it 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 how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And 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 ESV)
Over time the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, had compiled a massive list of laws that, despite being man-made, were considered equal to God’s Old Testament laws. Some of these regulations included what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was commanded by God to be a weekly day of rest and remembrance [Genesis 2:3].
In fact, most of the Pharisees’ man-made regulations pertained to the Sabbath (over 20 chapters of the Talmud are devoted to Sabbath laws). Restrictions included how far someone could walk, how heavy an object they could lift, and how much medical attention could be provided to someone who was ill.
Other violations included reaping, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food (all food had to be prepared the day before). Jesus and His disciples seemingly broke all these rules while passing through grain fields and plucking heads of grain to eat.
Restaurants and hotels were scarce back then so God made a compassionate provision in the law which permitted travelers to eat, but not gather, from someone’s field as they passed through [Deuteronomy 23:24-25]. So what Jesus and the disciples were doing was perfectly fine.
Somehow the Pharisees observed their actions (likely by breaking their own rules about how far one could travel from home on the Sabbath) and confronted Jesus about it. They claim that Jesus and His disciples were doing what was not lawful. But Jesus points out the flaws in their thinking by referencing two examples, one historical and one contemporary.
The Scriptures tell the story of David eating the Bread of the Presence from the temple when he and his allies were on the run from King Saul, who was trying to kill them [1 Samuel 21:1-6]. Even though the bread was for the priests, God did not punish David for eating it because he was hungry. God understood this. Likewise, the priests who ran the temple have to work on the Sabbath but are also considered guiltless.
The Pharisees considered themselves Scripture experts. But Jesus exposes their lack of understanding with the phrases “Have you not read…” and “if you had known what this means”. This would have offended, embarrassed, and angered the Pharisees.
The Pharisees’ hearts were far from God. They didn’t know Him as well as they claimed. Therefore, as leaders they were leading people away from God not to Him with all their restrictions. God does not want people to follow such leaders.
God’s laws exist to point our sin and thereby draw us to Him [Romans 3:20]. They are not designed to create weariness and burdens in our life. Moreover, God’s law was never meant to take a back seat to God’s mercy. Jesus points this out by quoting the prophet Hosea [Hosea 6:6].
God is not looking for reasons to punish us. He is not looking to condemn people. He is looking to show mercy [John 3:17; 2 Peter 3:9].
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