But the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes had developed all kinds of things to make Sabbath worse than every other day because of its unbelievable restraints. Edersheim, in his classic work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, has done some marvelous work in researching this and going back and digging it out of the Talmud. The Talmud comes after Christ some time but picks up and codifies all the laws that have long existed in Judaism.
For example, you couldn’t travel more than three thousand feet. Some say you can’t go more than nineteen hundred and ninety-nine steps. If you take the two thousandth step, you’ve violated Sabbath. Now, this would be from Friday when the sun goes down till Saturday when it goes down. The only way you can go further than that is if you put some food nineteen hundred and ninety-nine steps away on Friday before Sabbath, and once you got to the food, you’ll get another nineteen hundred and ninety-nine steps, either go further or to come back.
Now, wherever there were narrow streets, according to the Talmud, you could lay a piece of wood or a piece of rope over the entrance to the street between the dwellings on each side, and you could make the street like the entrance to a house so you could go another three thousand feet or nineteen hundred and ninety-nine steps beyond that.
By the way, in the Talmud there are 24 chapters of Sabbath laws. There are 24 chapters of Sabbath laws and one rabbi said he spent two and a half years studying one chapter to figure out all the minutia. Things like you could lift something up and put something down, but only from certain places to certain places. You could lift it up in a public place and put it down in a private place, or you could lift it up in a private place and put it down in a public place, or you could lift it up in a wide place and put it in a legally free place and on and on and on. No burden could be carried that weighed more than a dried fig, or half a fig carried two times.
If – if you put an olive in your mouth and rejected it because it was bad, you couldn’t put a whole one in the next time because the palate had tasted the flavor of a whole olive. If you threw an object in the air and caught it with the other hand, it was a sin. If you caught it in the same hand, it wasn’t. If a person was in one place and he reached out his arm for food and the Sabbath overtook him, he would have to drop the food and not return his arm, or he would be carrying a burden and that would be sin.
A tailor couldn’t carry his needle. The scribe couldn’t carry his pen. A pupil couldn’t carry his books. No clothing could be examined lest somehow you find a lice and inadvertently kill it. Wool couldn’t be dyed. Nothing could be sold. Nothing could be bought. Nothing could be washed. A letter could not be sent even if it was sent via a heathen. No fire could be lit. Cold water could be poured on warm, but warm couldn’t be poured on cold. An egg could not be boiled even if all you did was put it in the sand. If you’ve been to Israel, you know there are times in the year when the sand is so hot you could boil an egg. That was not allowed.
You could not bathe for fear when the water fell off of you it might wash the floor. If a candle was lit, you couldn’t put it out. If it wasn’t lit, you couldn’t light it. Chairs couldn’t be moved because they might make a rut. Women couldn’t look in a glass or they might find a white hair and be tempted to pull it out. Women couldn’t wear jewelry because jewelry weighs more than a dried fig. A radish couldn’t be left in salt because it would make it a pickle and that’s work. No more grain could be pickled than you could put in a lamb’s mouth.
It goes on and on. Laws about wine, honey, milk, spitting, writing, getting dirt off your clothes. You could use only enough ink for two letters. Not two written letters, two alphabetic letters. You could have a wad in your ear but you wouldn’t put false teeth in your mouth. What was forbidden? Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sifting, grinding, kneading, baking, washing wool, beating wool, dying wool, spinning wool, putting on a weaver’s beam, making threads, weaving threads, separating threads, making a knot, untying a knot, sewing two stitches. On and on and on. You talk about heavy laden. The system was oppressive and it was all unscriptural and horribly ungodly and brutally unkind.
Now, with that in the background, let’s look at the story, the Sabbath incident. “It happened that He was passing through the grain fields on the Sabbath and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain.” Huh! That’s the key, it’s a Sabbath incident. By the way, the Pharisees are following Him, so they don’t make an issue about Him walking beyond three thousand feet, or nineteen hundred and ninety-nine steps because they’re there too. So they were dogging His steps everywhere He went. They conveniently don’t mention this because they would have been in violation of it as well. But then again, they knew they were in violation of a whole lot of things. What they do focus on is, by their own standards, a severe violation.
They were going through sown fields. Literally, sown fields is what Luke calls them, maybe wheat or barley. The grain is ripe, which makes it presumably spring or summer. In the Jordan Valley, grain ripens in the Valley from April to August. Harvest may have been very near. The fields are laid out in strips with paths crisscrossing the strips. The roads are not distinguishable from the paths through the field. There aren’t thoroughfares, highways, big roads. Everybody goes through the land walking through the fields and that’s the way it’s always been.
And so, in Deuteronomy 23:25, God makes a wonderful – wonderful provision for travelers. When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain. Obviously, you can’t just harvest the grain and haul it off, but when you’re traveling through his fields, have at it. Take what’s there. This would be true of – of any kind of food in a reasonable, sensible way. To stave off your hunger, you’re welcome to what is there. So the Old Testament provides for that and it doesn’t restrict it to six days a week, it simply says you can do it.
The Old Testament never restricts how far a person can walk, how far they can go, how heavy the burden they can carry. It simply calls them to stop working and rest and spend the day worshiping God with no other narrowing restrictions. So His disciples are doing exactly what the Old Testament allowed them to do. His disciples making their way along while picking the heads of grain. Luke adds they were then rubbing them in their hands. They pick off the heads of grain, rub the heads of grain so they could get the inside fruit out from the husk and the shell. Matthew adds they did it because they were hungry.
This, of course, was perfectly within the purposes of God and the revelation of God in the Old Testament, but in direct violation of the religious rules manmade which dominated that legalistic culture. So you have then the Sabbath incident. It leads to the scornful indictment in verse 24.
The Pharisees now always dogging His steps, always there, “were saying to Him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” They were saying repeatedly – they were – they were haranguing Jesus and His disciples. It wasn’t just one statement, it was a repeated charge. And, in fact, Luke tells us they said, “And why do you do it also?” There they were ready to protect their hypocritical external religion with no thought for the provision of the Old Testament, no thought for the hunger of the followers of Jesus.
They’re scrutinizing Jesus. They’re wanting to indict Him because of His violation of their ridiculous manmade rules. Now this is what the Talmud said. If you roll wheat in your hands to remove the husks, it is sifting and that is forbidden. If you rub the heads of wheat, it is threshing and it is forbidden. If you clean off the shell, it is sifting and that is forbidden. If you throw the chaff into the air, that is winnowing. It is forbidden. So just in picking and rolling and rubbing and discarding, they had been reaping, threshing, sifting, grinding, winnowing and preparing food.
And their real question, the real underlying question is, why do You and Your disciples live in such overt, open defiance of our religion? Why do You challenge our religion? Why do You challenge our authority? It is an implied threat. It is not a legitimate question, they don’t want an answer. It is a scornful indictment, implying a threat. Jesus responds with a scriptural illustration in verse 25. “He said to them,” – He said this a lot. I think He really – He said this to dig in to them – “Have you never read” – that must have just galled them. There was nothing in the Old Testament they hadn’t read, nothing. But He says that a lot. You’ll find that through the synoptic gospels where He says, “Have you never read? Do you not know the scriptures?” I mean, this was galling to them.
But they did read it but without any understanding. Their interpretations were esoteric, mystical, convoluted, allegorical, like rabbinic interpretations of the Old Testament have always been through history and they still are today. If you want to get a convoluted confused interpretation of the Old Testament, listen to a rabbi. You – you never do get it, do you? It’s a biting indictment to suggest to them that they don’t know what Scripture means. But they don’t.
“Didn’t you ever read the story about David and what he did when he was in need when he was hungry and he and his companions,” – The story is in 1 Samuel 21. We don’t have time to go to it but you can read it yourself. David was fleeing south from Gibeah because Saul was after him. Saul wanted to kill him. He came, according to 1 Samuel 21:1 to Nob, NOB. That’s about a mile north of Jerusalem. That’s where the tabernacle was located. And he had no food and he was hungry.
There he met the priest named Ahimelech and he asks the priest for food. Fleeing for his life – those who were with him, they were all hungry and he asks him for food. He asked him for at least five loaves of bread but was told by the priest that none was available. Verse 4 of 1 Samuel 21 says, “And the priest answered David and said, “There’s no common bread on hand.” Don’t – I don’t have any bread. “But he said, interestingly, this priest, Ahimelech, “There is holy bread,” – Holy bread? What is holy bread? And then he said – “if only the young men have kept themselves from women.”
In other words, I’m willing to let you have the holy bread if your men have been holy. David confirmed, in verse 5, they were holy. In that sense they were clean. Verse 6, “The priest gave him consecrated bread for there was no bread there but the bread of presence. It’s called the bread of the presence, presence meaning God, the ever-present One, which was removed from before the Lord in order to put hot bread in its place.” Let me tell you how that worked. Every Sabbath – every Sabbath, hot bread was brought inside the tabernacle to a golden table. Twelve loaves of hot bread were placed on a golden table inside the tabernacle in the presence of God, symbolizing the need for the twelve tribes to have fellowship with God.
The following Sabbath, the bread that had sat there for a week would be removed and more hot bread would be brought in to keep that symbol fresh. According to Leviticus 24, verses 5 to 9, this is called the bread of the presence. There were two rows, two piles of these twelve loaves. The old bread on the Sabbath when it was removed, was to be eaten by priests only. Now that was the provision that God had made. Verse 26 tells us what happened from Mark’s record of what Jesus said. David and his companions show up, as 1 Samuel 21 says. They “entered the house of God” – the tabernacle – “in the time of Abiathar the high priest.”
The actual priest at the time was Ahimelech, but he was soon replaced and Abiathar had a lengthy priesthood during the time of David. And so he is the one whose priesthood dominates that era. And they ate the consecrated bread, which it is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him. The priest was very, very wise. He understood that no ceremony should survive while some person dies. Ceremony is ceremony, ritual is symbolic. You don’t save a ceremony and lose a person. It has its place, but mercy triumphs over ritual and ceremony.
This priest understood what anybody would understand. That’s common sense. Nothing is as valuable as a life. It, perhaps, was actually a Sabbath when the old bread was coming out, and that’s why he could say, “I could give this to you.” So here on a Sabbath, not only were they eating bread but they were eating the bread that was symbolic of the twelve tribes before God and it was to be eaten only by priests. But all symbols are done away with when it comes to human need. Necessity always overrules ritual.
By the way, David was the king in exile. He was the true king. The nation had rejected him. If he had been in his rightful place as king, he and his men wouldn’t have needed to eat this bread. And Jesus, the great Son of David, had been rejected by His nation. And if they had received Him and He had been properly acknowledged as King, He wouldn’t be eating grain in a field like a poor traveler, either. Ceremony, ritual, tradition never stands in the way of mercy, kindness, goodness, necessity.
But the Pharisees didn’t care about that. They bound people with burdens and did nothing to relieve them. They were furious that Jesus healed a man who had been sick for 38 years. They violated love, they violated mercy, they violated compassion. They had no concept of grace. And when Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy,” He set Himself directly against them.
Here’s the point. If David could be allowed by a priest to violate a divine symbol, perhaps on a Sabbath, then the disciples could be allowed by the Son of God to violate an unbiblical regulation on a Sabbath. It’s that greater to lesser. If they could violate a divine prescription, certainly I can violate a human tradition. Their whole system is unbiblical, it is ungodly. And then in verse 27 you have the sovereign interpreter of the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath was made for rest and blessing and joy and mercy and compassion and the meeting of needs. There wouldn’t be a better day in the week to heal somebody. There wouldn’t be a better day in the week to provide food than the Sabbath. And then Jesus dropped the bomb of all bombs on their self-righteous minds in verse 28. “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” I am, He says, the sovereign ruler over the Sabbath. The Son of Man, again the messianic title, the Lord of the Sabbath, a stinging, impossible blasphemy to them.