Here is the Cliffs Notes version of the story from Jesus’ life that we will explore today: Jesus’ disciples had a snack, then Jesus healed a guy with a disability, so the religious leaders started making plans to kill Jesus.
I certainly understand if you think murder is a bit of an over-reaction to the offense of munchies and a miracle. But things will make a little more sense if you pay attention to what Jesus said while those things were happening, as well as noticing what the calendar said while those things were happening.
The story is found in Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11. The three writers agree on the basics of the day’s events, but each highlights different parts of the story.
Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. Some of his disciples were hungry, so they plucked some heads of grain to enjoy as they walked along. Some Pharisees, key religious leaders of the day, saw what the disciples were doing. They got themselves good and offended and said, “JESUS! YOUR DISCIPLES ARE BREAKING THE RULES! THEY ARE DOING WHAT IS UNLAWFUL!” (I’m pretty sure the Pharisees would be the kind of people who would type their comments in all caps). The disciples’ actions might offend some of us because of their reckless disregard for the gluten contained in their choice of snack. Or maybe we would be bothered by the fact that they are eating grain that does not belong to them (though actually it was an expected act of generosity and care for the poor to allow people to do what the disciples did – see Deuteronomy 23:25, which basically says it is ok to grab a handful of your neighbor’s grain as long as you don’t drive your John Deere onto his land and start harvesting). But what bothered the Pharisees was the day on which the disciples were doing their nibbling. It was the Sabbath.
God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. It was part of the original Top Ten list. First century religious leaders then spilled countless gallons of ink making lists of things not to do on that day, and then spent lots of time saying “gotcha” to people they caught doing those things. They were appalled by the fact that Jesus was letting his disciples get away with their Sabbath snacking, so they took it upon themselves to lecture him.
Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ lecture with a series of audacious statements.
First, he blasted their legalism. He reminded them that David broke the rules by entering the tabernacle and eating consecrated bread, and that priests in the temple broke the rules by working on the Sabbath. He implied that the Pharisees were more obsessed with “the rules” than God was, and that they needed to get over themselves and quit trying to out-holy the Holy One. Jesus told the Pharisees that they had it upside down when they valued rules more than they valued people.
Second, Jesus told them that their interpretation of the Sabbath was backwards. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God knew that we would be unable to live the life he wanted us to live if we were frantic and frazzled and worn out and wiped out from whirling around 24/7. So he gave us a gift: he told us to take a day off every week. The Pharisees had taken a day God intended for burdens to be released and made it into a day of carrying the huge burden of obsessing over how many steps we could take or how many ounces we could carry without making God mad. God’s vision for Sabbath was not that if we disobediently did yardwork that day, fire would fall from heaven and consume us and our mulch. God’s vision for Sabbath was that he loved us enough to give us the opportunity to rest. The Sabbath was a comfortable recliner given to us by God; the Pharisees insisted that people carry it on their backs. Jesus informed them that by their attempts to transform a lavish blessing into a legalistic burden, they were the ones who had actually broken the Sabbath.
Third, Jesus declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28). Wow! He had the nerve to claim that on the heavenly organizational chart, he was higher than God’s law (in the same conversation he also announced that he was higher on the org chart than the temple – see Matthew 12:6). So if he wanted his disciples to have a bite to eat on the Sabbath, that was his prerogative to allow them to do so, no matter how badly it offended the Pharisees.
Just in case the Pharisees weren’t furious enough, Jesus walked straight from the grainfield to their synagogue. He spotted a man with a shriveled hand that needed healing. He could have just whispered to the guy and asked him to clandestinely touch his cloak and receive a cure, but he wanted to keep provoking the religious leaders, so he had the guy stand up in front of God and everybody. Jesus again challenged the backwards value system of the religious leaders, reminding them that though they were appalled by the thought of healing the man on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t hesitate to pull their sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath. Then Jesus did the “work” of healing the man and making him as good as new. By then the Pharisees had had enough of Jesus’ audacity, and they went out and started plotting his execution.
Those Sabbath adventures help us to keep our priorities in line with reality:
People > sheep.
People > Sabbath.
People > rules.
Jesus > everything.
Want to explore further?
- Read the three different Gospel accounts of the Sabbath controversy (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11). What is unique about each account?
- Search for the word “Sabbath” in the Gospels on biblegateway.com. Read some of the other passages that describe Jesus breaking the rules of the religious leaders.
- What would it look like for you to prioritize people over rules today?