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Jesus: Picking Grain on Sabbath

      In Luke 6 we have the first example of a coflict between Jesus and other teachers regarding Sabbath observance. The story also occurs in Matthew 12:1-8 and Mark 2:23-28, both of which add some helpful details for understanding the event.

      Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, perhaps in the company of some Pharisees. Matthew adds the detail that the disciples were hungry. We don't know how hungry, but it might have been considerable. The disciples (not Jesus) began to pick some heads of grain, whether off the ground or from the stalks is uncertain. They rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked why they were "doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath".

      We need to be clear here that the discussion revolves around the details of oral law. The rabbis had developed guidelines to help resolve what should be done on the Sabbath, but there were many opinions on the subject. Some legal authorities said that it was permissible to rub grain in the hand on the Sabbath. The Pharisees who were with Jesus evidently thought otherwise, and asked him about it.

      The tone of Jesus' response is significant. He takes the question seriously and formulates a biblical response. He soes not dismiss the question as irrelevant, nor does he assert that the Sabbath laws are obsolete. He endeavors to show that the Sabbath laws were intended to take second place to human need.

      In answer to the Pharisees' question, Jesus recounts the story found in I Samuel 21 of David and his hungry men being given the consecrated bread by Ahimelech, the priest. The priest knew, as Jesus did, that extremities of human need take precedence over the Sabbath regulations. In fact, in the oral Torah, almost any of the commands can be broken when human life is at stake. Jesus doesn't bother quibbling about whether plucking or rubbing grain is permissible or not, he points to a more overriding principle, one that the rabbis had recognized for centuries.

      Jesus goes on to summarize his argument. The words of Mark 2:27-28 seem to capture his complete flow of logic the best. He states that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". In this statement he was alluding to the order of creation. Man was created on the sixth day, the Sabbath was the seventh. The Sabbath was intended to be the servant of mankind, not its master. Jesus is not introducing anything new here, but appealing to the original intent of the Sabbath when God created it. Another Jewish rabbi, Simeon ben Menasya, said the same thing in a slightly different way, "The Sabbath was given to you and not you to the Sabbath". In either case the Sabbath is seen as a gift, not a tyrant.

      Jesus then foes on to draw a further conclusion. He says, "So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." The word "so" is crucial in understanding this statement. It comes from a Greek word that means "therefore". He is stating that this can be logically derived from the previous statement. There have been different understandings of what Jesus meant by "the Son of Man is Lord even (or "also") of the Sabbath". The correct understanding must see it as a logical implication of "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath".

      It has been noted that Jesus uses the phrase "Son of Man" of himself in at least two different ways. The basic meaning of the term is "a human one", and Jesus uses it in that sense frequently (e.g. Mark 2:10; 8:31); most often when teaching his disciples. But he also uses it in a sense that alludes to Daniel 7:13, the vision of a glorified human one standing with God and coming in the clouds of heaven (e.g. Mk. 13:26; 14:62). There is nothing in the context of Mark 2 that would allow for this usage here. Jesus is not claiming any supernatural power to change the Sabbath regulations and substitute a different sacred day for his followers. Nothing could be farther from his mind. He is simply saying that as the ultimate representative of humanity, what holds for mankind generally also holds for him specifically. His needs, just like anyone else's, take precedence over the Sabbath commands, even though it was his disciples, not him, whose actions were in question.

      In this incident, as always, Jesus is endeavoring to show that he is scrupulous about observing Torah. Even when people question his disciples actions, he defends them by appealing to the original intent of the Torah and the Sabbath regulations.

Healing a Hand

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Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands.
Psalm 119 :66