In Luke 6:1-11, we find two more instances where Jesus tangled with the Pharisees—this time, on the issue of the Law. This passage is much more fleshed-out in Matthew 12.
Underlying Christ’s views are two key parts of Judaism. First, the OT—1 Samuel 21:3-6 (hcsb):
[David said to Ahimelech the priest:] “Now what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread or whatever can be found.”
The priest told him, “There is no ordinary bread on hand. However, there is consecrated bread, but the young men may eat it only if they have kept themselves from women.”
David answered him, “I swear that women are being kept from us, as always when I go out to battle. The young men’s bodies are consecrated even on an ordinary mission, so of course their bodies are consecrated today.”
So the priest gave him the consecrated bread, for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from the presence of the LORD. When the bread was removed, it had been replaced with warm bread.
And secondly, He references the Mishnah (notwithstanding that it was written down after the time of Christ):
[The following rules apply when] an animal falls into a cistern or into a water conduit [from which it cannot ascend on its own]: If one can supply it with its needs while it is there, one should do so until Saturday night. If not, one may bring cushions and blankets and place them beneath it. If this [enables the animal] to ascend, there is no difficulty. Although one is nullifying the possibility of using a utensil – for one is throwing it into a cistern [filled with] water – [our Sages did] not institute a decree [in this instance], because of the suffering [the] animal endures.
Christ explicitly references these two principles when the Pharisees and scribes accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath law, but he also cements his argument with a resoundingly different statement: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” So there are three things to consider.
1. eating the shewbread vs. eating the grain.
David in 1 Samuel 21 is receiving an exemption from the Mosaic Law. What the priest offers is unusual; the showbread is consecrated for only the priests—which David and his men are not. And yet the priest not only gives his permission, but is actually the one who suggests it!
Jesus in Matthew 12:7 connects this to Hosea 6:6, suggesting that even while under the rule of law, the principle is mercy, not sacrifice. The intent of the Law is to lead to mercy, not ritual; heart-change, not outward appearance.
The disciples were “hungry,” they had no food; they’re walking through a field and they pluck and eat the grains. Like David, their experience could have been prevented if they’d planned ahead, perhaps. But, like the priest extended mercy to David and gave him the showbread, Jesus defends the disciples for eating the grain, even though it was the Sabbath.
2. Helping a fallen animal vs. healing a human.
It’s rather interesting, actually, that when Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, he appeals to their own traditions. If a sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, help it or get it out, don’t let it suffer! Mercy not sacrifice. And so with healing—help the man, don’t let him suffer! Mercy not sacrifice.
3. Breaking the Sabbath in the temple vs. breaking the Sabbath in the presence of God.
Having thus established that the disciples were no more lawbreakers than David, nor was Christ more lawbreaker than the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus takes it up another notch in Matthew 12:5. Further referencing the Mishnah, He points out that the priests in the temple broke the Sabbath as a manner of course—as a matter of worship. Gill explains:
There were many things, which, according to the Jewish canons, the priests might do on the sabbath day; particularly they might slay the sacrifice: it was a rule with them, דחתה שחוטה את שבת, “that slaying drives away the sabbath” (u). They might also knead, make, and bake the showbread on the sabbath day: their general rule was, as R. Akiba says, that what was possible to be done on the evening of the sabbath, did not drive away the sabbath; but what was not possible to be done on the sabbath eve, did drive away the sabbath (w): so they might kill the passover, sprinkle its blood, wipe its inwards, and burn the fat on the sabbath day (x), with many other things. What exculpated these men was, that what they did was done in the temple, and for the service of it, upon which an emphasis is put; and agrees with their canons, which say, that there is no prohibition in the sanctuary; איסור שבות במקדש התר הוא, “that which is forbidden to be done on the sabbath, is lawful to be done in the sanctuary” (y)
And so Jesus reiterates—just as he had in the earlier chapter when he explained why the disciples didn’t fast—that “something greater than the temple is here.” If it is permissible to break the Sabbath to worship God in the temple, how much more permissible to break the Sabbath to walk with Jesus in the flesh?
I had never really thought of this passage as a powerful argument against Sabbatarianism, but it surely seems to be. Jesus is repeating His refrain of being superior to the Law (explicitly, to the Sabbath!), and that even under Moses, the Sabbath was no moral absolute—that it was acceptable to break it for really quite minor reasons (i.e. not even to save a life, but merely to ease animal suffering, to quell hunger pangs, etc.), and that, moreover, the Sabbath specifically falls on the side of “sacrifice,” not “mercy.”
Of course, the Sabbath was still a commandment of God, like the sacrifices were, but clearly it was intended to reveal sinful hearts (Romans 7:7) and ultimately was “weak and unprofitable” (Hebrews 7:18), pointing us toward our “better hope” (Hebrews 7:19).