One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” Luke 6: 1-5 (NRSV) (Eucharistic Reading)
What do you do if you’re on the road to somewhere, you absolutely have to be there at a particular time (say, before sundown), and you’re hungry? That seems simple enough; you head for a restaurant (if you have the spare time) or you hit a fast food drive-thru and grab something to go. It seems almost counter-intuitive to think of doing anything else like going hungry, doesn’t it?
That’s precisely what Jesus’ disciples did. They were on the road and got hungry so they dropped by the nearest equivalent of a drive-thru and gathered some food. It wasn’t as if they had messed up the entire field; grain on the edges of the fields were traditionally reserved for the poor, widows and orphans when the time for the harvest came. What was a few handfuls of grain when it came to a whole field? No, the owner wouldn’t have a problem, but the Pharisees did. (How did they get there anyway? Did they have members of that sect following Jesus around like paparazzi after Hollywood royalty?)
Snapping the head off a stalk of grain was work and rubbing them in their hands to remove the husks so that the inner kernels could be eaten was work. It probably wasn’t the plucking as much as the husk removal that got the notice of the Pharisees. They weren’t shy about questioning why a law-abiding Jew would allow such behavior and on the sabbath as well, when all work was forbidden unless it meant saving a life, whether animal or human.
Jesus had an answer that recalled an incident (1 Samuel 21:1-6) when David was on the run and he and his band were hungry. It happened that the closest place was at Nob, at the place where Ahimelech was the priest. David let on that he was on a secret mission and he and his men needed food, so could Ahimelech please give them some bread?
Ahimelech wasn’t too sure about this, but there was some day-old bread which had been on the altar since yesterday and was just that morning replaced with fresh loaves. It wasn’t as if God was going to miss some slightly stale bread. Besides, when a man with a reputation like David’s looks you in the face and wants something, you are probably going to give it to him, aren’t you? But that was a side issue; Ahimelech had bread and even though it was consecrated, it was probably more prudent to give it to David and not risk his taking it by force, which he might do if he were hungry enough. It wasn’t so much that the bread was wanted on the sabbath but that it was holy bread that was supposed to be reserved for the priests and not for ordinary people.
Jesus’ point was that sometimes rules are meant to be broken, especially if they involve hospitality or saving a life. It seems people need rules so they know what is permissible and what isn’t. As a culture develops, there is the need for more and more rules with tighter and tighter regulation of something or other. There needed to be clear-cut delineations as to proper vs. improper. In the story of Jesus and the grain, the law dealt with the sabbath, a day instituted by God in the Big Ten given to Moses on Sinai and which became a defining event for the Israelites. Egyptians certainly didn’t give their people a day off every seventh day just to rest up and relax; no, they worked seven days a week.
To be sure that the Israelites realized that they were now under a new ruler, the sabbath was instituted for them and they were expected to relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, then came the finer and finer definitions of what was allowed and what was not. People could eat but only food that was prepared the day before. I guess the dishes stayed dirty until the next day as well. Jesus made what seemed to be an outrageous claim when he said that he was “lord of the sabbath.”
The Pharisees following him probably came close to cardiac arrest with that one. Mark tells a similar story of Jesus, the grain and the Pharisees (2:23-27) where Jesus didn’t claim to be Lord of the sabbath but rather that “…[T]he sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” God had taken that seventh day of creation for a rest day to sit and admire the handiwork of the other six days, and offered that same day of rest to God’s people so that they could relax and enjoy the day, the peace and quiet, the relief from stress and in God’s company.
Christians acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all that is – including the sabbath. We go to church on Sunday (which has become the Christian sabbath except for a few denominational groups) and that’s one thing the sabbath was designed to do, to give us time to really think about and worship God. Of course, these days we go grocery shopping, play golf (which involves walking further than the Jewish law would allow not to mention using a vehicle), go to movies or football games, even cook, clean, do yard work and just about anything that is done on any other day of the week.
Perhaps we need to remember Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath and not just Lord of one hour every Sunday morning. It might be a good thing to try, anyway, that taking time to breathe and think of God for one day without multitasking. The dishes will still be there tomorrow.
“Illustration Hordeum vulgare0B”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons