Jesus defends plucking grain on the Sabbath. Mark 2:23-28. Five stories of conflict

The literary structure of Mark 2:23-28

Five conflict stories handout

We’re continuing to work our way through the five stories of conflict in Mark 2-3:6. And today we come to the fourth story, where Jesus defends plucking grain on the Sabbath. Our story begins in Mark 2:23, if you would like to turn in your Bibles.

Let me say, first of all – this text is difficult. It has generated many different interpretations.

And also, this topic is controversial. Should Christians keep the Sabbath? Is Sunday the new Sabbath? My own view is that in Acts 15 the Jerusalem council ruled that Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Law – which would include keeping the Sabbath, but that Gentile Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses (The apostolic decree). Although, of course, you can choose to keep the Sabbath or another day as set apart to God if you like.

Let’s look at story –

Mark 2:23-28

And we begin with the accusation of the Pharisees

23One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

The concern here is not that the disciples are stealing. They’re gleaning, which is allowed in the Law (Deuteronomy 23:25). The concern is about what constitutes work on the Sabbath.

Keeping the Sabbath, as you know, is the fourth of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:10 says in part – “on the Sabbath you shall not do any work.” The problem is that the Old Testament is a bit vague on what all the word “work” covers. (But see Exodus 16:22-30 – no gathering manna; Numbers 15:32-36 – no gathering wood; Exodus 35:3 – no kindling a fire; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-22, Amos 8:5 – no trading; and Jeremiah 17:19-27 – no carrying loads).

One text that is more specific, Exodus 34:21 forbids plowing or harvesting. But are the disciples really harvesting? They’re picking a few heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands and then eating the good part (Luke 6:1). The Law is concerned with going out into the field with a sickle as a part of your yearly work load.

The Pharisees here do specifically define this as a forbidden Sabbath practice. This is their interpretation of Exodus 34:21. But not everyone at this time accepted the Pharisaic view on things on any number of topics and Jesus is clearly one of them. (As we will see in Mark 7 he rejects the traditions of the Elders.)

That the disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath shows that Jesus has taught them that this is acceptable on the Sabbath. Which is why, as we will see, he goes on to defend them. And I would just note that a later Rabbinic tradition held that plucking grain on the Sabbath was fine, as long as no tool was used – which is the case here. (b. Shabbat 128a – “And one may pick them with his hand and eat, as long as he does not pick them with a vessel. And one may crush and remove the seeds with his hand and eat them, as long as he does not crush a lot with a vessel”; Yong-Eui Yang) (No tools could be used in gleaning).

So this is not about whether to keep the Sabbath or whether it can be broken. Both sides agree that it’s to be kept. [Although many commentators come to this story with an inbuilt assumption that Jesus and the disciples had no problem breaking Sabbath law, this is surely wrong. From the point of view of the text of Mark what we know so far is that Jesus is concerned about keeping the Law. Note his instructions to the leper. And to break the Sabbath was punishable by death. Why would the disciples knowingly do this when they still are not clear that Jesus is even the Messiah? This comes later in chapter 8. And why would the Pharisees later need to seek to trap Jesus to accuse him if this was a clear cut case of breaking Sabbath? They would already have him. And why wouldn’t they have been arrested or why wouldn’t this be a part of the charges against Jesus in Mark 14, warranting his death? No, this story is like its parallel in Mark 3:1-6. It’s a question about how to observe the Sabbath, not about the freedom to break the Sabbath, for whatever reason.] [We will look at Mark 7 later and see that Jesus does not set aside the Mosaic food laws for his Jewish followers.]

The debate is about who has the authority to declare what is proper Sabbath observance?

Jesus begins his response by referring to an interesting story from 1 Samuel 21:1-6

25And 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: 26how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the 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?”

Now, Abiathar wasn’t the high priest at this time. His father Ahimelech was, although he was almost certainly there when this happened. But Abiathar is the better known of the two, later being David’s high priest. So he’s used as a point of reference here.

There are some analogies here, from Jesus’ point of view, between David’s situation and what’s going on in Mark 2:

  • David’s a type of the Messiah and Jesus, is the fulfillment, the Anointed one
  • David’s men compare to Jesus’ disciples
  • David’s a king in waiting yet to be revealed, as is Jesus
  • David and his men are hungry. Jesus’ disciples are hungry
  • And David and his men do something unlawful. The disciples do something the Pharisees say is unlawful

But there’s a key difference. Although what happened in 1 Samuel 21 may well have taken place on the Sabbath (this is when the bread would be available to eat – Leviticus 24:8-9; and according to some later Rabbinic traditions) Jesus doesn’t focus on this. Jesus focuses on how it was unlawful for them to eat the bread of the presence, which was only for priests (Leviticus 24:9).

Another difference highlight’s Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees here. In this story an actual violation of the Law is permitted both by the high priest and Scripture, in the sense that it doesn’t condemn David. But the Pharisees condemn what is not a violation or at least what is a disputed violation based on their view. Whereas Scripture here is flexible, given human need; the Pharisees are super strict.

But I think the key reason Jesus refers to this story is to emphasize two crucial themes:

1. David and his men’s need. Jesus says in v. 25, “David was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him.” Now, there’s no indication that they were starving, but they were in need of food. [1 Samuel doesn’t actually mention anyone with David and some commentators think that there weren’t. This was a part of David’s fabrication. Jesus, however, takes this part of David’s statement as true.] This shows that the Law has a humanitarian bent to it that takes into account human well-being.

And 2. David’s authority in this matter. Jesus’ reading of 1 Samuel 21 accentuates this. As he says in v. 26, David “ate the bread of the Presence . . . and also gave it to those who were with him.” David was able to do this because of who he was. And David is a type of the Messiah. The unspoken implication is that the Messiah, his son, will also have similar great authority with regard to the Law.

Both of these points set up what Jesus has to say about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for human well-being. This takes up the first point.

 27And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

The point of Sabbath observance is to bless humanity. It’s a gift of God for rest from the normal routines of work.

I like the NLT of this verse, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” The rules of the Pharisees, although well intentioned, make Sabbath observance a burden (Matthew 23:4) which is the opposite of rest.

Jesus teaches here that the Sabbath should have a humanitarian bent to it. It shouldn’t cause human need, but should allow the meeting of basic human needs – here simple hunger. (In Matthew 12:7 the quote of Hosea 6:6 stands in for this saying on the Sabbath.)

And then finally, Jesus speaks of his authority to declare proper Sabbath observance. This takes up the second point of the 1 Samuel story about David’s authority. (This is the core argument. Notice that Luke 6 leaves out the humanitarian argument.)

28So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

In 1 Samuel 21 David was lord over the law on the bread of the presence. “So” the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), that person who will rule and judge the nations on the final day alongside God, whom Jesus connects to himself as the Messiah, David’s son — so the Son of Man is Lord not just of a onetime exception to a matter of minor cultic law – he is Lord even of the Sabbath, as important as it is.

To say it another way, if David, the prototype of the Messiah can authorize a breaking of the Law, surely Jesus, his son, the Messiah and Son of Man can rule in a mere dispute over interpretation of the Law on proper Sabbath observance. (Sigal; Davies and Allison). And he rules that plucking grain on the Sabbath is proper.

What about us?

What should we take from this? It’s a fairly complicated discussion about a topic – plucking grain on the Sabbath, that most likely none of us has ever even thought to raise.

Well, we are reminded of Jesus’ true identity and thus his great authority. This is a constant theme in this part of Mark.

In the Old Testament the Sabbath is God’s. For instance, Leviticus 19:3 says, “You shall keep my Sabbaths: I am Yahweh, your God.” The Sabbath is God’s, but here Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It is his. Once again, Jesus takes on the role of God. This is who Jesus, our Savior is.

Keeping Sabbath should take into account caring for human need. This certainly give guidance to Jesus’ Jewish followers, and should be applied to any Gentiles who keep the Sabbath or Sunday as a holy day. This is a part of the new wine for new wine-skins (Mark 2:22). Whatever guidelines you might use – don’t create human need, but rather place human need and caring for it at the center.

Finally, Jesus is our teacher in all things. He has authority over every part of our lives, not just on this topic. As he says in Matthew 23:10 – “You have one teacher, the Messiah.” And as he says in Mark 8:34, “follow me.” We are to follow his example.

So, if you want to know God’s will on any matter – look to what Jesus has taught and modeled for us in the Scriptures. See how this interacts with what the Old Testament taught. And then see how the rest of the New Testament helps us to understand Jesus. And that’s how you know God’s will.

And if you do this and then someone accuses you of not doing God’s will, as with the disciples in this story, you have the confidence to know that Jesus will defend you with his full authority, just as he does in this story.

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