25. The Lord of the Sabbath

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Those pesky Pharisees are at it again- trailing Jesus and causing problems. Once again, we see Jesus confront them:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-8)

This account is found in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. You can read the other versions by clicking on the links but today we will be read from Matthew. Once again we find Jesus on the Sabbath doing things that the Pharisees think he shouldn’t be doing. What was going on this time? Well, the disciples were hungry and as they passed through a grain field, they picked some heads of grain. Upon first glance it may appear that the disciples are stealing grain and that is why the Pharisees are mad… again. But according to Deuteronomy 23:25, hungry people could hand pick grain from their neighbor’s fields. They were just not allowed to use a sickle to harvest. The Pharisees were not angry because they were picking someone else’s grain… They were angry because they were doing on the Sabbath day. Remember, God said not to do any work on the Sabbath but the Pharisees had made so many rules about what “work” was that it was difficult to keep their Sabbath laws. And what were some of these ridiculous laws? The oral tradition, called The Talmud, states that any journey over 2000 steps was considered work and was not permitted. You also could not carry anything over a prescribed number of steps or that was considered work. Modern Jews who wish to keep strict Sabbath laws may squeeze lemon on fish but may not squeeze lemon into tea. For some reason one is considered work and the other is not. The Talmud also said that there was to be no harvesting, threshing, winnowing or processing of grain on the Sabbath. But this is exactly what the disciples were doing by picking the grain and separating the kernel from the chaff. So, naturally, when the Pharisees saw this they were quick to point it out.

Jesus, in classic Jesus fashion, uses Scripture to answer his critics. He reminds them of the time when David was on the run from King Saul. He and his men were hungry from fleeing the King and came to Nob and met with Ahimelech, the priest. There he asked if Ahimelech if he had any bread he could spare. Unfortunately, all the priest had was the Bread of the Presence. The Bread of the Presence were twelve loaves of unleavened bread that were consecrated and placed on a table in the tabernacle before God. There was one loaf to represent each of the tribes of Israel. Each loaf weighed between six and twelve pounds. This bread was placed on the table on the Sabbath and was left there for a week. At the end of the week, the loaves would be removed and fresh loaves would be presented. The old loaves were given to the priests as part of their benefits package but because the bread was holy, only priests were supposed to eat it. But David was famished! So the priest, showing mercy to David, gave the holy bread to him and overlooked the letter of the law.

The other example Jesus gives is that the priests who serve in the Temple to work on the Sabbath and God is pleased with them. God shows mercy on them because they are doing God’s work.  The Pharisees are so caught up with memorizing Scripture and keeping rules and keeping the Temple in tip top shape that they forget that God’s heart beats with mercy! For the second time we see Jesus quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In other words it would have been a different story if the disciples had been in the field with sickles and bags for reaping but because they were simply hungry and picking just enough to satisfy their hunger, God finds them innocent of wrong doing. His mercy toward their hunger is greater than the law itself.

Then Jesus drops a doozy into the laps of the Pharisees: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” (verse 8). This would have pushed the them over the edge. By calling himself, “Lord over the Sabbath,” Jesus overrides any man-made laws, especially those made by the law-stickler Pharisees. He is also declaring himself greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the law. He of course can make those claims but it would’ve angered the Pharisees immensely. Mark adds this line in his account, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” (2:27). The Pharisees had made so many laws about keeping Sabbath that keeping Sabbath became impossible. But God’s purpose for Sabbath was for physical, emotional, and spiritual restoration. The people were not resting if they had to worry all day about not breaking laws! One scholar puts it like this- man became the servant of the Sabbath instead of the served.

All this makes me wonder… Am I like the Pharisees in any way in my life? Is there anything in my life that I am so concerned about rules and regulations with that I am unwilling to surrender it to God. Or in other words, is there something in my life that I hold higher than God and am willing to protect at all cost, like the Pharisees did with the Sabbath? If I am honest, I would have to say my children are the thing I have to be most concerned about becoming idols in my life. Yet, God asks me to surrender even them to him to do as he wills. If I love them so much that I am unwilling to turn them over to God, then I am no better than the Pharisees. What are you holding on to? What is your idol?

The End.

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