At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads 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 what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or 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.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
Matthew unveiled the Pharisees. They were superstitious hypocrites. They valued outward displays of godliness. Jesus’ disciples were hungry. So they reached out and grabbed what was available. The Pharisees condemned them for it
Why? God commanded rest no the Sabbath. We are not to work on the Sabbath. Harvesting is work. It did not matter rather it was an entire field or a single ear. Harvesting is harvesting. And harvesting is work. We are only talking about the amount of work. Jesus’ disciples were working So they violated the Sabbath.
You can see the logic. It appears sound. But what about all other forms of work. Fixing meals is work. Walking into the kitchen is work. They had an answer for that. You could travel up to 2000 cubits (.596 miles) outside the city on the Sabbath. You could do that much work without violating the Sabbath.
But work is work. Why 2000 cubits? Why not 1000 cubits? Or 5000 Cubits Why is that much work ok? But picking an ear of corn is not ok. They would argue it had to do with necessity. But that raises another question. How necessary?
The problem was not how much work. The problem was a superstitious belief about righteousness. And Jesus called them out on it.
Their superstition held that certain actions brought righteousness. And addressing hunger violated the Sabbath superstition. They would rather a man go hungry on the Sabbath.
Don’t get me wrong. We are to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a holy thing. But we are not to keep it the way the Pharisees imagined.
Why do I say they were superstitious? Here are some examples of superstitions? Rubbing a rabbit’s foot for good luck is superstitious. Holding a horseshoe upside down causes the luck to run out. Or any ritual athletes go through before a game. These are all superstitions. They have no power. But the superstitious believe these actions have power.
Any belief that certain actions or inactions bring us righteousness in superstition. Our righteousness comes from Christ. Our righteousness does not come from anything we do or do not do. (Romans 3:22, 5:17, 5:21, 8:10, 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 2:21; Philippians 1:11, 3:9)
The Pharisees’ superstitious hypocrisy caused them to condemn trivial matters. At the same time, they commended themselves on following their superstitions. They would pay tithe on mint and anise. But they ignored the important things of the law. (Matthew 23:23) And Christ condemned them for it.
Hypocrites are lenient in important matters. But they pay strict attention to insignificant details. Superstitious hypocrites observe rites and ceremonies. They believe the rituals are what is important. They limit their duty to God to external actions.
Superstitious hypocrites fill our churches. Go to church every Sunday. Take part in the worship service. Give in the offering. Sing in the choir. If I do enough of those things, then I am righteous. But that is not what God desires. (Proverbs 21:27) We must live according to His will. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
But what does our culture teach? We need a positive self-image. Our culture teaches us to be self-reliant. It teaches we must not think of ourselves as broken. It teaches we are of immeasurable worth.
But we are broken. We have no value apart from God. We must rely on Him.
The Pharisees claimed the disciples were doing “what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath. Really!? The Old Covenant did not prohibit plucking grain on the Sabbath to eat. That was a man-made rule. The disciples were not farmers engaged in harvesting. The Pharisees’ based their objections on oral tradition. It was a tradition that failed to understand the true purpose of the Law.
Take care when you condemn the Pharisees. We are as guilty. We do the same thing. “Don’t drink, smoke, or crew, or go with those who do.” We condemn alcohol when its use in scripture is clear and plentiful. We have our own oral traditions.
We don’t go to certain places because it may affect our “Christian witness.” We ignore the fact that Christ hobnobbed with sinners. And it affected His witness. The Pharisees accused Him of being in league with the devil. They accuse Jesus of being a drunkard. They condemned a sinless Christ of sin. Creating our own form of righteousness is the same sin as the Pharisees.
Christ gave four arguments to refute the Pharisees. First, He showed historical precedent. He used David as exhibit A. When David fled from Saul, he had no provisions. He and his men were hungry. So they ate some of the holy bread. (1 Samuel 21:6) David acted out of necessity. If David’s necessity excused him, the same argument applies to other cases. The Law was not violated. There was no violation of godliness. David was free of blame.
Christ’s second argument is, it is lawful for the priest to labor on the Sabbath. Priests slay beasts. They circumcise infants. They do many things related to worship. So worship-related labor does not violate the Sabbath. You might say, “But the disciples were not involved in performing religious functions.” If that is the case, you missed the point. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Maintaining the body’s health and welfare has great value. Discharging the duties of godliness exempts the worshiper from blame. The disciples’ “labor” presented God with bodies and souls consecrated by the Gospel.
Third, the Pharisees ignored the purpose of the ceremonies. Why did God give them? Were they only an end in themselves? This is a common error in almost every age. Hosea condemned his age for its attachment to the ceremonies. They did not understand why the ceremonies existed. (Hosea 6:6). They did not care about the duties of kindness. They too held to superstitious obedience. They could execute the ceremonies and go home. Once the ritual was over they had done their duty. But God declared that He sets a higher value on mercy than sacrifice. (Micah 6:8)
Christ charged the Pharisees with torturing God’s Law. They stripped it of meaning. They ignored the second table of the law. They focused on what was easy.
But why does God say He is indifferent to ceremonies? After all, He is the one who commanded them. The answer is easy. External rites and ceremonies have no value in themselves. Their value comes from what they represent. Christ did not reject them. But He placed their value below what they represented. They are far below being holy. They are below kindness and love. It is not inconsistent to say, the highest value belongs to worshiping God.
The final argument is from creation. The Son of Man has dominion over creation. That means He has dominion over the Sabbath too. This no doubt shocked the Pharisees. Jesus’ claim of deity strengthened their resolve to kill Him.