The best defense against legalism
Sometimes, events really stick in your memory. This next scene must have left a big impression on the disciples, since three of the four gospel authors wrote about it.
At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
The Pharisees weren’t knocking the disciples for “stealing” grain, as picking grain heads was expressly allowed in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 23:25). The Pharisees’ problem was with the disciples’ timing, as the Mosaic Law stated that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest. The Pharisees had identified 39 actions that constituted “work” and were therefore forbidden on the Sabbath – the disciples had plucked the heads of grain (harvested), rubbed them in their hands (threshing), blew away the chaff (winnowing), and ate the kernels (preparing a meal). So, in the minds of the Pharisees, not only were the disciples in violation of the Mosaic Law four times, but they had done so with Jesus’ permission.
This is no small, nit-picky charge, either. Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death, and the disciples’ guilt would show everyone that Jesus was an illegitimate teacher. Jesus came to the aid of his charges and gave three convincing arguments against the Pharisees’ accusations:
He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry – how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests?
Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!
If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus both protected his disciples and refuted the over-zealous self-interpretation of the Sabbath by the Pharisees by taking them back to the Scriptures.
Jesus pointed out that an exception in the ritual law was made because David and his men were hungry – a legitimate need had to be met.
From there, Jesus remind the Pharisees that the priests serve and work in the temple without being guilty of breaking the Sabbath – and if temple work can excuse a person from Sabbath, how much more “excused” is someone who serves the Lord of the Sabbath?
Thirdly, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 to point out how the Pharisees have missed God’s desire to extend mercy toward those in great need, and how that desire takes precedence over a sacrifice if the two are in conflict.
Through a proper view of the Scriptures, Jesus demonstrated that His disciples had not violated the Fourth Commandment. In fact, the only thing that had been violated was the traditional Pharisee interpretation of how a Sabbath day was to be observed.
Looking at this scene from a mentor’s perspective, our application is rather obvious…we need to know God’s Word. We are to teach it to our protégés, but we must also be ready to defend them against unfounded attacks.