Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath
1 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"
3 Jesus answered them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." 5 Then Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Get up and stand in front of everyone." So he got up and stood there.
9 Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?"
10 He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.
One of the curious things about athletes is that the higher they go in their level of play, the more attached they seem to become to a certain jersey number. This seems to be particularly true of basketball players, although I’m sure players in other sports are the same way. But this oddity isn’t just limited to college or pro players. I’ve seen guys at recreation adult city leagues get all worried because they couldn’t have their specific jersey number. It’s crazy how important it can be for some guys to have what they feel is their specific number. You couldn’t imagine how much I had to deal with this issue as a high school basketball coach. It seemed like each year we would have some sort of conflict when it came time to assign guys numbers for the year, as a couple of guys would want the same number. If one player was a returning player and the number was his in the last season and one player was new, then the returning player would get his number. If, however, we had two new players that both wanted the same number, it wasn’t as easy of a solution.
I recall one year in particular where two players wanted the number 23. This was the number that they had each always worn and it was a number of particular importance to many basketball players because it was Michael Jordan’s jersey number. Neither of the two would back down and thought that they had the right to the number. I appealed to them to think of the importance of team and putting teammates first over the importance of a number but neither one would budge. They were simply letting the importance of a jersey number become way overblown, so I needed to send a clear signal to them. I came to them before our first game and told them that I was the one in charge and that neither one would be wearing 23 that year. Because they had lost sight of the real importance of their jersey number as opposed to other things that really did matter, I was going to remind them quite clearly that I was the one with the authority in this situation. I was the one who would decide how important jersey numbers were and who would have what jersey. Neither player was particularly thrilled but they both got the point.
Observance of the Sabbath was extremely important to the Jewish people, especially the Pharisees. Sabbath observance was one of the main markers of following the law and being the people of God. It was, for them, one of the main ways that they showed that they were God’s people and others were not. Those that broke the Sabbath laws had, in the mind of the Pharisees, clearly demonstrated themselves to be anything but the true people of God. The problem came in that the Old Testament law was not very specific about what it meant to keep the Sabbath holy. It forbade working on the Sabbath but didn’t give very many specific examples of what that meant. By the time of Jesus, though, a rather complex number of laws and definitions had risen up that defined what was okay to do on the Sabbath and what was forbidden. These rules, quite frankly, went way beyond anything given in Scripture but had taken the level of Scriptural commands in the minds of many Jews of Jesus’ day. When it comes down to it, they had lost sight of what was really important and what the whole point of the Sabbath was. They needed someone to step in with the authority to put the Sabbath in its proper perspective.
In going through a field and grabbing some grain to eat, Jesus’ disciples were only doing what was permitted under the law (Deut. 23:25) where grain could be taken from someone else’s field with your hands but not with a sickle. The issue was whether in the act of taking the grain and rubbing it they were violating the prohibition from working on the Sabbath. One question that arises that Luke does not answer is why the Pharisees were even there. They were apparently following Jesus and his disciples around, seemingly waiting for them to make a mistake. What is really a minor issue can become a major issue and a point of extreme annoyance when you have already determined that you hate someone and want to see them fail. But the Pharisees jump on the tiniest of infractions although even the reality of this being an actual unlawful infraction rests on whether or not one accepted a particularly sctrict interpretation of the law.
Jesus doesn’t make any attempt to apologize for the behavior of his disciples or to argue with the Pharisaical interpretation of Sabbath work laws. What he is does is to infuriate the Pharisees even further by asserting an authority that they don’t recognize or embrace. Jesus gives a slight insult by asking them if they have never read what David did. Of course they had read this account, but the point is really that they have not understood what they read. David was the rightfully anointed king of Israel who had yet to be seated on the throne. He was on the run from Saul who would not recognize his position and authority and ultimately wanted him dead.
When we take a step back and look at the example that Jesus was using, the point sharpens into focus a little more. He was doing a whole lot more than simply saying that there was one time when David did something that was technically unlawful and that he was going to rest on that precedent and claim that it was alright for his guys to do something slightly unlawful as well. The point was not whether David ate the bread that was reserved for priests alone but that David, as the rightfully anointed king, had the authority over the strict interpretation of the rules. David had rightful authority to do what he did. So did Jesus. That’s his point, but it goes even deeper than just that. David was the properly anointed and true king of Israel who was on the run from his enemy and had yet to take the throne and be recognized as king. That was the exact position that Jesus was in. He was the rightful king of Israel. He was the anointed one (the literal meaning of “Messiah). He was also, though, on the run, in many respects, from his enemies who increasingly wanted to have him killed. And like David, he had yet to be recognized as the rightful king and sit on his throne. Because Jesus was in the same position as David and had authority, just like David, to supercede normal rules or protocol.
In fact, Jesus’ authority went beyond that of David’s. David was appointed by God and anointed by Samuel as the king of Israel, but Jesus was the Son of Man. He was identifying himself in somewhat enigmatic terms as being the one like the Son of Man that Daniel had written of. He was, in other words, claiming the authority as the one who “was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). Why could the disciples go ahead and rub grain in their hand and eat it on a Sabbath even though it was against the normal interpretations of what was lawful? Because Jesus was the Lord of the Sabbath. He had the authority and that was really all they needed to know.
The reason, though, that the Pharisees had so much trouble with accepting Jesus’ authority over the Sabbath and his claim to be able to bring a new understanding to what the Sabbath was all about was because they failed to understand the purpose of the Sabbath from the very beginning. It is for this very reason that Luke, I believe, decided to include the next incident in verses 6-11 between Jesus and some Pharisees concerning a Sabbath matter.
In the first confrontation, it seemed that the Pharisees were following Jesus around looking for a problem. The second account, however, seems that Jesus was intentionally instigating this situation as an opportunity to teach an important principle. He intentionally went into the synagogue and found a man with a shriveled right hand. Certainly, Luke says, the Pharisees were watching him closely and were looking for him to violate their Sabbath laws again. But Jesus seems more than happy to accommodate them. At stake here is the issue of the purpose of the Sabbath. Was it solely to forbid certain activities or was it a day on which God would be honored.
What was the Sabbath for? Was it a day when evil should be done or good? Was it to save life or destroy? Once again, Jesus didn’t technically do anything that would constitute work even by the strictest interpretations of the law. He simply told the man to stretch out his hand. When the man obeyed Jesus at his word, he was healed. Luke has thus combined three important themes from the early chapters of his Gospel. First, faith is productive when people obey Jesus solely on the basis of his word (just as Peter and the others had the fishing haul of their life by doing nothing more than obeying Jesus). Second, Jesus could heal and even suspend the normal expectations or law of the Sabbath because he was the coming king who had every right and the authority to do so.
In both situations, Jesus put the Pharisees in seemingly difficult situations. If David had the authority to suspend Sabbath laws in certain situations then so did Jesus. If God had created the Sabbath to honor him then wouldn’t it be right to do good things that brought life rather than evil (the assumption Jesus has is that to do nothing in situations like this when you are capable of doing good would be to do evil)? In both cases, it didn’t come down really to breaking Sabbath regulations, it came down to the all-important issue of authority and the identity of Jesus. If he was who he was subtly claiming to be then he absolutely had the authority to do what he was doing. That was the real problem for the authorities. It wasn’t so much Jesus’ actions that were driving them nuts, but the authority he was claiming in order to take those actions.
Luke is setting the stage and showing us that Jesus was methodically shaping a new family of believers that found their identity as God’s children around obedience to Jesus not through regulation and ritual. He was creating God’s new family and preparing them to live in God’s age to come according to an entirely new ethic. It is this way of life for the Messiah’s new family to which Luke is about to turn but we cannot help but see the sharp contrast between the new people of God, the new Israel, that Jesus was creating and the old way of the Pharisees. If they would have just realized that rather than rejecting Jesus’ authority, that they too, like the crippled man, could have reached out to Jesus and found themselves completely restored.
Do you ever get so caught up with people looking “right” and acting “right” at church that you forget about God’s mercy and love? Do you ever find yourself drifting back to the old mindset of rules, regulations, and religion rather than allowing room for the mercy and love that God really wants from his family?