23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And 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: 26 how 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?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The first years of marriage are years filled with fascinating discoveries! Once, as a young husband, I took a shirt to my wife on a Saturday afternoon and told her that the front of the shirt was missing two buttons. I shared with her that I was very much wanting to wear the shirt the next morning to church where I would be preaching. I asked if she could sow two buttons on the front and she happily agreed.
The next morning, Sunday, I put on the newly repaired and recently ironed shirt. I smiled when I went to button the shirt and realized that my beautiful bride could sew! The two buttons on the front of the shirt lined up perfectly with the buttonholes. I buttoned up the shirt, grabbed a tie, raised my collar, tied it, put the collar down again…and then went to button my collar
It took me a moment to figure out why my two collar buttons were missing, but I did indeed figure it out.
I called Roni into the room and said, “Dear, you did a wonderful job with this shirt.”
“Why, thank you,” she responded.
“There’s just one thing I’m curious about, though.”
“Where,” I asked, “did you get the two buttons to fix my shirt.”
She paused and smiled. “From your collar.”
We still laugh about this to this day, over twenty years later.
There is a way to fix a problem without ever fixing the problem. Sometimes we might even feel that this is a good metaphor for life. A lot of us spend a lot of time just moving the buttons around on the shirt. But moving the buttons around really does not solve anything if you still do not have enough buttons!
There is a general principle here, to be sure, but there is also a religious principle. In fact, we might define “religion” as the human construction of sacred ceremonies in which buttons are moved around in a most solemn and ritualistic manner. Religion, in other words, is doing something and it is even trying to address real issues, but, in and of itself, religion does not really fix anything.
The Pharisees were official button movers. They were very concerned about where the buttons should go but were nonetheless blind to the fact that they were still dealing with an insufficient number of buttons. Jesus, on the other hand, did not come to move buttons but rather to gives us a whole new outfit! He came to dress us anew, not patch us up.
The difference between what Jesus was doing and is doing and what the Pharisees were doing is nowhere clearer than in our intriguing passage.
The Pharisees allowed the outward forms of religion to blind them to the heart of God.
Once again, Jesus is in conflict with the religious establishment, this time not because of something He was not doing (i.e., fasting), but because of something his disciples were doing.
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
There is a cultural disconnect here that we need to try to tackle. Why were the Pharisees so very upset at Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain? We need to understand that the primary problem was not what they were doing but when they were doing it. They were plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Therein lay the scandal. William Barclay has offered some helpful background information.
On any ordinary day the disciples were doing what was freely permitted (Exodus 23:24). So long as the traveler did not put a sickle into the field he was free to pluck the corn. But, this was done on the Sabbath and the Sabbath was hedged around with literally thousands of petty rules and regulations. All work was forbidden. Work had been classified under thirty-nine different heads and four of these heads were, reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. By their action the disciples had technically broken all these four rules, and they were to be classified as lawbreakers. It seems fantastic to us; but to the Jewish rabbis it was a matter of deadly sin and of life and death.
So Jesus and His disciples were colliding with the sacred conventions of the day. They were, in the eyes of the Pharisees, violating the sacred Sabbath. Danny Akin points out, Jesus’ “crime” here was two-fold: (1) “they were traveling, which was defined as walking more than 1,999 paces” and (2) they were “reaping,” which appeared to violate Exodus 34:21 in which we read that “you must rest on the seventh day, you must even rest during plowing and harvesting.” “Plucking,” Akin tells us, “was considered ‘harvesting’ in the eyes of the Pharisees.”
In response to the outrage of the Pharisees, Jesus told them a Bible story.
25 And 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: 26 how 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?”
We should first recognize a kind of delicious irony in the fact that Jesus quoted the scriptures to the Pharisees. Were these not the religious experts? Did they not know this scripture? Or did they know it without really knowing it? There is a subtle indictment in the fact that Jesus appealed to the Bible against the Pharisees: those who claimed to know so much were forgetting their own area of supposed expertise.
The story Jesus told them came from 1 Samuel 21. There, David was fleeing murderous Saul who wanted to destroy him. Here is the passage to which Jesus alludes:
1 Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” 2 And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. 3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” 4 And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” 5 And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” 6 So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. 7 Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
David and his men ate “the bread of the Presence” or “the showbread.” Camille Focant explains that “the loaves of showbread are twelve flour cakes one put as an offering before Yahweh as a perpetual covenant. At its renewal each Sabbath, the old bread was taken away and it could only be consumed by the priests (Lev 24:5-9).”
In other words, Jesus appeals to a story in which the great David, “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), ate the sacred bread that belonged to God. David, too, had therefore violated the customary understanding of the sacred.
Why did Jesus tell them this story? He did so in order to make a point by paralleling the two situations. Like David and His men, Jesus was operating in the will of God and while the conventions designed to protect the sacred had been violate, the sacred itself had actually not been violated. Why? Because the heart of the law is the glory of God and His blessing of His people, and this cannot be contained in mere legalisms. How, in other words, did it violate the law for David, the man destined to be King, to feed himself and his men on sacred bread in a moment of necessity while fleeing murderous Saul? Was not the greater good in that case the survival of David? Did it not please God more that His chosen one should survive than that the customs be literally upheld?
And what of Jesus and His men? Did it not please God more, and, in so doing, honor the entire point of the Sabbath more, for Jesus and His men to be nourished, strengthened, and comforted in their Kingdom mission by eating the heads of grain than by them not doing so and remaining hungry in an effort to honor the conventions and rules? If the point of the Sabbath is rest for weary humanity and honor for God, then what could achieve that point better than that God’s Son and His chosen disciples should eat and be nourished on this most sacred of days?
“You can know the law by heart,” writes Philip Yancey, “without knowing the heart of it.” Indeed! And this seems to be what had happened with the Pharisees. So concerned were they with the outward forms of religion that they had grown blind to the very heart of God! What Jesus was doing did not look right to them only because they could no longer see rightly!
This is the danger of religion. This is the danger of legalism, which is a disproportionate emphasis on the forms and mechanics of religion. This is empty religiosity: to begrudge hungry men their food because they were violating the religious customs.
J.C. Ryle, the famed 19th century Anglican bishop of Liverpool, observed of our text that, “we see from these verses what excessive importance is attached to trifles by those who merely observe the external forms of religion.”
Let us watch and pray lest we fall into the errors of the Pharisees. There are never lacking Christians who walk in their steps. There are thousands at the present time who plainly think more of the mere outward ceremonies of religion than of its doctrines…It ought to be a settled principle in our minds that someone’s soul is in a bad state when they begin to regard human rites and ceremonies as things of superior importance, and exalt them above the preaching of the Gospel. It is a symptom of spiritual disease. There is mischief within.
What most angers you and what most pleases you? When a person is in church but they are not dressed as nicely as you personally think they should be, which wins out: (a) anger at their violation of sartorial custom or (b) joy that they are here at all! What legalisms are possibly blinding you? Just how important are the outward forms of religion to you? How focused are you on the ritualistic element of what we do, the ceremonial, the external?
I am not arguing that there is not a place for ceremony in our lives together, but I am arguing that there is no place for the merely ceremonial and there is never a place for any external rite that would blind us to who God is, to what our purpose is, and to what it is that God is doing here with us and among us.
Legalism is a powerful thing! “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6).
The Pharisees allowed their religion to blind them to the reality that, in Jesus, the God whose honor they were seeking to protect was standing right in front of them.
There is indeed a scandal here, but the real scandal is not what Jesus and His disciples were doing. The real scandal was in the shocking ignorance of the Pharisees concerning who exactly it was that they were trying to connect. In fact, the Pharisees allowed their religion to blind them to the reality that, in Jesus, the God whose honor they were seeking to protect was standing right in front of them.
27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Here again is rich irony: the Pharisees were standing before God trying to correct God in their effort to honor God!
Jesus makes two statements. The first is, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” We might paraphrase this as, “God did not give us this day so man would be burdened with an impossible ideal to which he must labor and strive. God gave us this day so that His creation might be blessed and man might rest.” John Donahue notes that verses 27 and 28 form “a perfect chiasm: (A) Sabbath, (B) humankind, (B’) humankind, (A’) Sabbath” and that “the device rhetorically stresses the primacy of the human person…over the Sabbath, and prepares for the subsequent “Son of Man”…saying.” That is really quite interesting and highlights the point: while all of creation, including the Sabbath, should have the glory of God as its primary focus, it is indisputably true that God is most glorified in the Sabbath when His creation receives the rest and restoration that He intends for us to receive from it. Thus, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
The Pharisees had distorted the Sabbath into a kind of theoretical thing before which men should tremble and fear. Into this fear, the Pharisees poured their countless rules and strictures. As such, the Sabbath was perverted by them into an ominous thing. But God intended for man to be blessed in the Sabbath! As such, the disciples picking grain in the fields for their nourishment was more befitting the Sabbath than the Pharisees’ many rules.
But this second statement from Jesus is a bombshell: “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
In truth, were Jesus hoping to calm the situation, this was the worst thing He could have said! But Jesus was not after a façade calm. He was a proclaimer of the truth, no matter how jarring the truth might be. So He adds this as if it were a mere addendum. In fact, it was an atom bomb.
By calling Himself “Lord even of the Sabbath” Jesus was making the astonishing claim that He had the authority to define the Sabbath and Sabbath observation properly. But that was an authority that only God had, for God alone had instituted the Sabbath! What we recognize as a beautiful truth would have been seen by the Pharisees as outright blasphemy.
It is almost as if Jesus were saying, “Do not tell me how to understand my own day. I made the Sabbath.”
This is an amazing and jarring claim to deity. Meir Y. Soloveichik has pointed to Jacob Neusner’s consideration of our text in demonstrating that there was an even more shocking element present in Jesus’ words. In his book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, Neusner interacts with the New Testament picture of Christ and ultimately rejects Christ. His reasons are interesting.
A central passage for Neusner’s discussion is Jesus’ defense of his violations of the Sabbath:
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears 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 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.”
Neusner notes that actions that are usually forbidden on the Sabbath, such as lighting fires, slaughtering, and cooking, were permitted in the Temple. Thus, Jesus’ argument is that he has replaced the Temple: “His claim, then, concerns not whether or not the Sabbath is to be sanctified, but where and what is the Temple, the place where things are done on the Sabbath that elsewhere are not to be done at all. Not only so, but just as on the Sabbath it is permitted to place on the altar the food that is offered up to God, so Jesus’ disciples are permitted to prepare their food on the Sabbath, again a stunning shift indeed.”
Neusner argues that Jesus is not a liberal Jew seeking to ignore the rituals of the Torah; rather, he is claiming to be the dwelling place of the divine: “No wonder, then, that the son of man is lord of the Sabbath! The reason is not that he interprets the Sabbath restrictions in a liberal manner…Jesus was not just another reforming rabbi, out to make life ‘easier’ for people…No, the issue is not that the burden is light…Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue.”
Neusner imagines himself conversing with a disciple of Jesus: “Is it really so that your master, the son of man, is lord of the Sabbath? Then” so I asked before, so I ask again “is your master God?” Again and again, Neusner returns to this question. Both Jesus and the rabbinic sages, he argues, agree that the essence of life is imitation of God. Jews believe that the holy life is achieved via observance of the Torah, the sanctification of the mundane world by adhering to its many minutiae. For Jesus’ followers, their master is now the equivalent of God, of the Torah, and Jesus’ instructions focus less on whether grain can be picked on the Sabbath and more on entering the Kingdom of Heaven. As such, the holy life must be defined by following him.
This certainly adds yet another layer to what is happening here! If food could be prepared only in the Temple on the Sabbath and Jesus said that food could be prepared with Him on the Sabbath, was Jesus not equating Himself with the Temple and therefore with the very presence of God? It is a stunning thought, but one that has merit. After all, did Jesus not do the same in John 2:19 when He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”?
Christ is the Temple. Christ is God with us.
This means that the Pharisees’ fixation on the externals of religion and on their own legalisms had blinded them not only to the needs of suffering man but also to the glory of God Himself…a glory now unexpectedly displayed in the incarnate second person of the Trinity, Jesus.
No wonder they wanted Him dead.
But the point cannot merely be a historical point about the psychology of a religious sect in first century Palestine. The point is also that religion can do the very same to us. Like the Pharisees, we too can be lured into a kind of soul-coma by the soothing sights and sounds of religious ritual and by the rush of religious rule keeping. There is nothing quite so blinding as the destructive flash of our own self-righteousness and there is nothing that engenders self-righteousness quite like taking your place as the keeper of the gate and the guardian of the rules and there is no gate quite so intoxicating as the gate of religious observance.
Beware, Church, beware! It is possible to love your rituals for God more than you love God. It is possible to love your religion more than you love your heavenly Father. It is possible to be drunk on the wine of legalism and miss the very heart of the gospel!
Jesus did not come to establish a religion. He came to start a revolution, a revolution grounded not in the minutia of religious rules but grounded rather in the person of Jesus Himself.
Do not miss Jesus because you are so busy practicing your Jesus religion! Do not miss God in your efforts to honor God.
Christ is loose in the fields of the world and He has come to change the world forever! This will mean that the world will oftentimes not understand, it is true, but it will also mean that religious folk oftentimes will not understand either. At the end of the day, whether one is blinded by atheism or religion, they are still blind.
Set aside your petty legalisms and rituals and dare to look squarely in the face of the Lord of the Sabbath, the Author of the book, the Creator of the day, the Lord of the wheat and the world and the whole wide universe. Christ has come to set us free from sin, death, and hell…and, yes, even from our religious silliness.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.57.
 Daniel Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.60-61.
 Camille Focant, The Gospel According to Mark. Translated by Leslie Robert Keylcok (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), p.115.
 Philip Yancey. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p.195.
 J.C. Ryle, Mark. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p.26.
 John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina. Ed., Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Vol. 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), p.112.