An Old Approach to Sabbath

What is the purpose of law? If it is merely about rules, then keeping those rules will supersede all else. When I traveled to The Netherlands to serve as a missionary apprentice, the rules said that I had to leave. After being detained for four hours at the airport, I was allowed to enter the country with strict instructions to report to the police within days. The rule was intended to keep out religious cults; people who would prey upon the citizens of The Netherlands. But, the rules swept all religions into one pile and labeled them all useless and dangerous. The police officer didn’t see it that way. He wanted us to be able to stay in his country. So, he lost our papers. Did he break the law? Or, did he give the law a different interpretation? I think he said, “You seem like nice people who will do no harm to my citizens. I will do what I can to allow you to stay.” But did he have the right to interpret the law?

The Pharisees had the tendency to make the law more important than people and therefore they missed what God was doing with the law. In Luke 6:1-5 their old crusty approach to the law collides with Jesus’ breathing life interpretation. Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on a Sabbath day. In Deuteronomy 23:25 the law said that if you were walking through your neighbor’s standing grain you could pluck the grain with your hand, but make sure you don’t use a sickle. Now that makes sense. You are walking through and you’re hungry. You can grab some grain and eat. But don’t get greedy and start to harvest what belongs to someone else. This command provides for the immediate hunger of those walking through a field. So, the disciples plucked some grain, rubbed it together and ate. The problem was that this happened to be a Sabbath. In Exodus 34:21 the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath even during plowing and harvest. The rabbis guarded this law and determined that plucking grain with your hand on the Sabbath was reaping. Rubbing the grain together in their hands would have been considered threshing. For the Pharisees and their approach to law, this would have been a clear violation and the human circumstances of being hungry would have made no difference.

Notice that they ask Jesus and Jesus is more than willing to take responsibility for his disciples’ actions. As you read through the gospels you almost get the feeling that certain Pharisees spent their time just watching for Jesus to do something they could complain about. In their approach to the law, they do not seem to be concerned about helping people and their relationship with God. It is all about accusations – a pointing finger of condemnation.

Jesus asked them, “Have you not even read . . .” which must have felt like a slap to the Pharisees. The story that Jesus directs their attention to is found in 1 Samuel 21:1ff. It is an interesting story of David, who is on the run from Saul, acquiring and sharing some of the consecrated bread or “bread of the presence” with his young men. Now, the law stated that this bread was for Aaron and his descendants; i.e, the priests (Leviticus 24:9). As usual the Pharisees took a very narrow view of this command and interpreted that it would be wrong for anyone other than priests to eat it – ever! But there was this story about someone eating it, and not just any somebody. The epitome of Israelite kings; the man who is called the man after God’s own heart; the anointed king. David himself ate this bread and gave it to his men. David who was not a descendant of Aaron. Jesus ends the episode by simply saying “the Son of Man is Lord (Master) of the Sabbath.”

What is Jesus doing here? What does this obscure story about David eating consecrated bread have to do with new wine and old wineskins; about Sabbath laws; about Jesus being master of the Sabbath? David was God’s anointed who was being hunted by the old king; the king who tried to rid the world of God’s anointed. And as God’s anointed David interpreted the law, not to seclude all but the priests, but to allow those who are hungry to eat the bread that was all about displaying God’s providence. How ironic to interpret God’s rules about this display bread in a way that would allow God’s anointed to starve to death. Just as David, as God’s new anointed King, was allowed to interpret the law and give the bread to his men, Jesus, the anointed Messiah, is allowed to interpret the Sabbath in a way that keeps the intent of the law instead of killing it. Don’t kill God’s laws by approaching them merely as rules. Let God’s law breathe life as they were intended. Law is about relationship; about people. Missing that misses everything.