Lord of the Sabbath: Mark 2:23-28

The disciples and Jesus are walking through a barley or wheat field.  Some Pharisees, a group of legalistic Jews, are standing by, ready to ambush them.  For Jesus chafed them the wrong way, going against their grain.  In the other Gospel accounts, we learn they are hungry.  So what are they to do?

Tired and starving, they pull some stalks of grain into their hands.  Next, they shuck off the skins and let the wind blow the chaff away so they can devour the ripened seed.  The Mosaic Law approved what the disciples did.  “Now, if you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pluck the grain with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25).

In this way, God provided food for the hungry while also protecting the farmer from a thief who might try to take too much of his yield.  The Pharisees understood this Scripture, but they liked their interpretation better, making themselves gods over what God wanted them to believe and do.

The subject, at hand, is whether Jesus’ disciples are snatching a bite to eat while walking by or taking part in harvesting the field.  The Torah allowed someone to grab some grain if passing through, but not to reap the planted crop.  The disciples only take what they will eat for the moment.  So, they aren’t doing the work of selling, transporting, or storing grain—the labor of reaping.  No, their actions are lawful.

The Pharisees disagree, concerning themselves with walking, gathering grain, and eating on the day when the people ceased from their labors.  One may only walk so far or make so many movements.  Eager to find fault, they attempt to charge Jesus on a technicality.  So, they ask Him about the Sabbath.

In response, Jesus refuses to quibble over the minutiae.  For this will only result in point and counterpoint, and He snubs their offer to step into a snare.  No, Jesus will force these Pharisees to consider why God established the Sabbath.  So, He brings them back to the story of David and Abiathar, reminding them of the reason behind the Sabbath—God delivering His pardon to His people.

Catch the irony.  The Pharisees work overtime on a designated day to rest, trying to trap Jesus in a sin.  Entwined themselves by sin, they desecrate the spirit underlying the Law as they strain to snag Christ on a minor detail.  For them, condemning another who doesn’t buy into their worldview is more important than resting, more than seeking the spiritual refreshment God gives.

Legalistic people act this way.  Too often, they meet the letter while trampling down the driving principles behind a specific law.  The Pharisees burdened people with added requirements without dealing with the fundamental problem.  So meticulous are they in following the law, revealing an intensity for the particulars while lacking concern for justice, mercy, faithfulness, and life itself (Matthew 23:3, 23-24).  Underneath their challenge is a dysfunctional understanding of why we worship.  The beliefs behind this topic propel them to confront Jesus.

Let’s ponder the purpose of such rest instead of focusing on the legalities.  The issue is God’s grace, revealed to us in Jesus, who alone can cure our spiritual disease and restore us to God.  The Sabbath is a day to celebrate and delight in His salvation.

Remember what St. Matthew wrote, who quoted Jesus as the new Temple, the One who brings mercy (Matthew 12:6).  “Do you not read in the law?  On the Sabbath, the Temple priests violate the Sabbath and yet are innocent.  Here, is something greater than the Temple!  For if you understood what ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice’ means, you would not be condemning the innocent” (Matthew 12:5-7).

So, Jesus didn’t defile the Old-Covenant Law but fulfilled all, according to the prophets.  To show this, He reminded them of what Hosea said.  “For I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  In His divine compassion, He wants to provide all people with His life-giving grace.

Consider David, fleeing with some soldiers.  Hunted by Saul, weary and ravenous, they arrive at the Tabernacle, the Temple’s predecessor (1 Samuel 21:1-6).  Famished, he seeks food, but the only available is forbidden, the “bread of the Presence.”

What is the significance of this?  Each week, the priests made 12 loaves and placed them on the golden table in front of the Holy of Holies (Exodus 25:23-30), on which they also set a flagon of wine (Leviticus 24:5-7; Numbers 15:5-7, 28:7).  The priests ate this bread and drank the wine each Sabbath—and no one else.

In Hebrew, this is the “bread, which is the Presence.”  The word “presence” is panim, which means “face.”  The bread is where God became present to His people.

In the Old Covenant, God commanded all Israelite men to take part in three feasts every year: The Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  The Scriptures tell us why.  “All your men are to appear in the presence of the Lord God of Israel three times a year” (Exodus 34:23, 23:17).  At these three festivals, the priests would show to the people the Bread, revealing the Almighty’s Presence, His face to the people.

For this reason, God only consented to the priests to consume the bread and drink from the cup of wine (Leviticus 24:5-7; Numbers 15:5-7, 28:7).  These actions foreshadowed the Supper of Jesus, in which all God’s people will be permitted to partake.  For in the New Covenant, everyone will be brought into the Royal Priesthood, authorizing repentant people to dine on the wine and bread of His presence.

Still, David isn’t authorized to swallow such sacred bread.  Famished, hungry, and thirsty, nothing else is around to nourish him.  Here’s the problem—if he eats and drinks what is in God’s Holy House, He will disobey the Torah.  With hunger leaving him too weak to deal with Saul, if he doesn’t eat, he may die.  The priest, Abiathar, recognizes the reason for Sabbath rest.  The dire need of the moment leads him to take David inside, where he devours what God reserved for the priests.

The question is, “Does the Sabbath exist for the man or the man for the Sabbath?”  Long ago, God chose a day, the Sabbath, to refresh His people, to supply them with forgiveness and life.  The people can’t be resting if worship turns into them doing a deed for God, something they need to do.  So, God reveals the character of what happens when we gather in His name—He is doing something for us.  The Sabbath exists for the people, which is why God didn’t condemn David for eating the bread.

The Pharisees view David as Israel’s preeminent king.  Familiar with his history, if they denounce Jesus and His disciples, they will be disparaging David and his men.  Trapped in a corner, they are now forced to agree with Him.  For if David did something wrong, which God still allowed, they must conclude Jesus isn’t guilty either.

The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, as Jesus makes clear.  This title is Jesus’ favorite, which hails back to the time of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14).  The Son of Man is both divine and human, to whom is given all authority in heaven and earth.  With this power comes the right to declare any and all laws to be fulfilled or met.  The prophesied Messiah, Jesus, does both.  Now, “Christ is the culmination of the law, which leads to righteousness for all who believe” (Romans 10:4).

Though God mandated His Sabbath Laws, He did so for His people to rest.  In grace and mercy, God descended to them in His Temple, becoming present for His people.  So, they also failed to recognize Jesus became incarnate for them to fulfill the Law.

So we don’t commit the same error, what is the Lord’s lesson for us?  First, our Father promises a Sabbath rest for His people.  In our Savior, the pardon for our sins becomes personal, benefitting us by faith.  Realize this—rest is more than relief and respite from work.  Real rest is the quiet comfort of realizing God forgives your past, is with you now in the present, and holds your future in His hands.

In the sacrificed blood of His Son, God shows us His grace, where true forgiveness becomes ours.  For Jesus paid sin’s eternal penalties in full.  The Sabbath becomes the day to gather, to receive Christ’s body and blood in His Communion, given and shed to make His holiness ours.  With joy and eager expectation, we commemorate, remember, and unite in fellowship with Him.

From the lash of the unforgiving Law, Jesus freed His first followers.  Like them, we are free to serve Him in Spirit and truth.  No longer compelled by the ceremonial regulations of old, we can celebrate each day as set apart and sacred to God.

In the beginning, God created people.  Later, He unveiled the Sabbath, a time dedicated for us to be in His presence.  For us, we meet in Jesus’ name and remembrance.  For He is the Lord of all, including the Sabbath.  For this to still be true, Jesus must be present among us this day, to furnish us with eternal rest from above.

Today, we can rest in Jesus because He satisfied the requirements of the God’s holy Law for us.  Here, where Jesus promises to be, God invites us to drink and eat the food prohibited to David, which He still let David eat in mercy.  The Bread containing our Savior’s Presence descends to us.  The face of God in Christ Jesus comes to bless us with everlasting life and redemption, in whom we find our real rest.

Delivered into God’s Royal Priesthood, you may eat and drink, recognizing our Lord’s Sabbath is for you and your salvation.  Amen.

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