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Jesus defended his disciples gleaning on the Sabbath by retelling a story about David. Mark 2:23-28 (ESV):

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

It seems the point of the story compares the act of gleaning on the Sabbath with the act of eating the bread of the Presence in time of great need. It also seems that Jesus compared his authority to the authority of David. But how did the argument work exactly?


How did the Pharisees understand Jesus' answer? Does it matter that David was acting in a deceitful manner according to the story in 1 Samuel 21? The bread was specifically set aside for God and David essentially stole it. Gleaning was clearly permissible and the only question was whether it counted as work for purposes of the Sabbath law. What the disciples were doing was arguably permissible under the law, but I have a hard time seeing David's actions as justified.


Note: There's a related question about the name of the priest.

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In my understanding the key is the final verses:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

These two statements are not unconnected truths. The point being that God's (or the 'Son of Man's') intention with regard to the Sabbath law trumps obedience to the 'letter of the law'. Jesus explains the Sabbath "was made for man" (i.e. to bless him) not the other way round so if a man breaks the Sabbath law to avoid harm coming to himself, he is more in tune with God's intention than if he keeps the law to his harm (as an illustration, a starving man who works on the Sabbath for food does not displease God though he breaks the law).

In essence Jesus seems to be saying obedience to God is not the same as obedience to God's law—even if the law gives insight into how to please God. As another illustration consider a minimum speed limit and whether it is the intention of the relevant authorities that you do not drop below that speed even if there is a person on the road in front of your vehicle.

Perhaps related is John 5:18 and preceeding:

18This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.   ESV

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Good example of the minimum speed limit. (But I had to read it a few times to get the gist. Maybe I'm being dense today. I think it would help to spell out the two possible interpretations of the minimum speed, i.e, never drop below it or sometimes safety requires stopping. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 17:13
    
"In essence Jesus seems to be saying obedience to God is not the same as obedience to God's law." Reminds me of Johannes de Silentio's question in Fear and Trembling: "Is there a teliological suspension of the ethical?" He argues your statement exactly. As it is stated, however, I don't agree. –  Kazark Jun 1 '12 at 19:31
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I'm not sure I see how this addresses the issue. The disciples in Mark 2:23 aren't on the verge of starving or anything; they're simply out for a Sabbath stroll and picking grains. I'll have to think on this some more. –  Soldarnal Jun 1 '12 at 21:23
    
@Soldarnal - agreed, I didn't mean to imply that was their reason, just to illustrate the difference between obeying the law and pleasing the law-giver in principle. It is the Pharisees inability to see below the surface of the law into the heart of the one who gave it that provokes Jesus to chastise them. –  Jack Douglas Jun 2 '12 at 18:54

Heb 10:1 ¶ For the law having a shadow of good things to come, [and] not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

A shadow of something is not the thing. It is attached to the thing and is revealed by the light. The law has a shadow of the "good things coming". The good thing coming was the cross of Christ. This is a direct statement speaking of the sensus plenior. It is a picture of Christ hidden in the law.

Jesus uses an indirect reference to Uzziah and Azariah as a combined picture of himself. Uzziah represents Christ in the flesh, and the intentional mistake of calling him Azariah, tells us in the language of prophetic riddle, that he would be made the high priest in resurrection. Jesus references a narrative of Ahimelech, but replaces him with his son. Ahimelech represents Christ in the flesh as he was killed for helping David, and his son replaces him as high priest in a picture of resurrection.

The object of the riddle is the Messiah. He is the man in all the riddles. God rested on the Sabbath not because he needed rest, but as a prophecy of his future rest offered to mankind. He gave the law, not because God needed something to enforce, but as a prophetic riddle revealing the nature of God. Any particular law is only a partial revelation of God's character.

But God's character is more important than the law which reveals it. When the picture of his character conflicts with his character, his character wins out.

Jesus is the source of the future rest. The law is a picture of Jesus. Since Jesus is present, the picture has no more effect. This is the thesis statement of the book of Hebrews. What is past is the shadow, Christ is the reality.

Mt 11:28 Come unto me, all [ye] that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

The answer then revolves around how does the bread represent the cross? Jesus said that the bread wash his body given for us. The bread hidden in the temple would be made available to all through the cross. As such, the picture of David eating the bread, and giving it to his men is a prophetic picture of the last supper, and even more so of the cross, wherein we partake of his flesh, and through which we enter into his rest.

Reality trumps the shadow.

The question accuses David of acting dishonestly, but does so through concept feeding in the question. It should be removed from this question and asked directly so that it can be addressed without distracting from the main point here.

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In order to understand the New Testament we must first understand the foundation on which it sits: the Old Testament. The passage that Jesus is making reference to is found in I Samuel 21. It is of most importance to note that Jesus affirmed that it was lawful only for priests to eat the bread. Leviticus 24 details how the bread (or cakes ) were prepared and arranged. The text also makes clear that the bread was only for Aaron and his sons. In addition, the text strongly presents the bread as holy, so much that it could be eaten only in the holy place, and only by priests. So how was David able to get away with this?

Its not that he got away with anything and that is what I will try to prove.

According to Christianity Jesus fulfills the office of Priest, Prophet and King. David is very unique in that he is the only other person in the scriptures that fulfills these offices as well. David wrote about the messiah. There is no doubt he is one of Israel's greatest prophets. The same can be said of him as king. But we rarely see him as priest. This is a mistake as there is a tremendous theological connection. I Samuel 21:7 says

so the priest have him holy bread, for no other bread was at hand except the showbread which had been removed from the Lords presence and replaced by fresh bread when it was taken away.

David ate holy bread. What's intriguing is that it was with the blessing of a priest. What's more intriguing is that he was the future king of Israel. Even more is how he partook of it with his men. And how they had kept themselves pure and consecrated for days prior to their arrival. David knew the bread was for priests only. His men knew it was for priests only.The priest knew it was for priests only. Yet something felt right about it. Something was right about it. Even with God. The bible says that the showbread was "removed from the Lords presence" just for David. This was no ordinary man. No ordinary anointing. No ordinary call. Had he partaken in an unworthy manner he would have fell dead the moment he ate the bread.

Jesus goes on to say something that gives us more insight into the matter. In Matthew 12, after he mentions David and his men eating the bread, Jesus says,

or have you not read in the law that in the Sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent?

This is significant because by saying this Jesus is connecting the innocence of David with the innocence of the priests and ultimately with the innocence of the Apostles. What is important here is that the only way David can be innocent is if he is a priest and Jesus connects his innocence specifically to that of a priest.

Lastly, in II Samuel 6:12-14, after David was anointed and made king, he brought back the ark of the covenant and he sacrificed an ox and a fatlling. Sacrifices, as we know, were done by priests and In this passage we not only see David sacrificing but also wearing a linen apron which is just what a priest would wear.

Eating holy bread. Sacrificing. Wearing a linen apron. Building temples. Yes, I think he was a priest. I know he wasn't a Levite. But neither was Jesus. Or Melchizedek.

In conclusion, one of the most beautiful theological messages of this passage has to do with the bread and the fact that everyone that was with David partook. I believe this is symbolic of the body of Jesus. The bread is Jesus.

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Reading this passage today made me want to research it. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, and He came to fulfill the law not break it. This passage has several aspects that are best read together as Jesus combines them:

Jesus and Disciples Pluck and Eat Grains on the Sabbath

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

The Law is concise about the Sabbath (Lev. 23, Duet. 5) and makes a general statement not to work. Plucking grains on your neighbor's property was permitted by the Law (Duet. 23).Reading the Law at face value, the disciples were not breaking Biblical law, but Rabbinical Law. Reaping is one activity forbidden on the Sabbath based on the Misna Shabbat.

David Eating the Showbread

But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

Jesus states that David eating the showbread was unlawful, as it was lawful only for priests for eat the showbread per Biblical Law. One can either read this passage as Jesus then condoning breaking Biblical Law because David was hungry or that Jesus was highlighting the inconsistency of His opponents. Since Jesus came to fulfill the law and obeyed God in everything He did, it is more likely that the latter reading is accurate, especially considering how serious God took priestly matters.

With this interpretation, The Pharisees revered David and possibly did not condemn him for his eating of the showbread. Jesus asks then why they condemn Him and his disciples when they did not break the law.

Both King Saul and King Uzziah were punished by God for acting as priests. It is clear that God showed mercy on David in that situation. Nothing in Samuel indicates that David was esteeming himself as a priest by eating the showbread but rather eating due to hunger.

Priests Working on Sabbath

Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?

Jesus is speaking with hyperbole saying that the priests profaned the Sabbath by working on the Sabbath to point out that even all work was not forbidden on the Sabbath. The priests and Levites were assigned altar duties, and later in Numbers, God calls for a Sabbath offering (Num. 28).

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

As Jesus often does in addressing others' questions or comments towards Him, He uses this situation to make a statement about Himself or the kingdom of God. Jesus declares that He is greater than the temple and is "Lord even of the Sabbath." Yet as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus does not break the Law or condone breaking the Law. Jesus clearly had respect for the Law (Matt. 5:18).

Summary

  • Jesus and His disciples were not breaking Biblical law by plucking grains to eat and satisfy their hunger in the moment. The Sabbath law required some interpretation since it was general, and Jesus interpreted it as allowing the actions of Him and His disciples.
  • David's action was unlawful to eat the showbread, but he did claim to keep himself and men holy beforehand. God had mercy on David in this situation.
  • God permitted some types of work, priestly work, on the Sabbath, and even Rabbinical law accepted saving someone's life as permitted on the Sabbath, thus medical work for saving a life would be allowed by their strict interpretation.
  • Jesus states that He is greater than the Temple and Lord of the Sabbath, which only God can be. He is more capable of interpreting Sabbath law than the Pharisees.
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This is a really excellent answer. I'm interested how you interpret John 5:18: it seems to be John's voice saying Jesus was breaking the Sabbath (different case of course, but for me it casts doubt on "Jesus does not break the Law" at least in the superficial sense) –  Jack Douglas Jan 12 at 20:10
    
I think Jesus was breaking the Sabbath in the mind of the Pharisees, and John is saying at least that is their charge against Him. That verse especially refers to Jesus' healings on the Sabbath. The Jews would help someone in need on the Sabbath, and that is what Jesus is doing in John 5:18. –  YellowJacket Jan 19 at 3:10

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