Background Scripture: Luke 6:1-47.
Devotional Reading: John 2:5-17.
About 2,000 years have passed since Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees over the Sabbath law, so it may help us to reconsider the role that law played in Jewish daily life.
Judaism evolved into a legalistic religion. Living the Jewish life was a matter of doing what God commanded and not doing what he forbade.
It began with the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses and the Israelites during their escape from Egyptian captivity.
From then until the time of Jesus, the law evolved into a legalistic system of 613 rules, 248 commands and 65 prohibitions, which were bolstered with 1,521 corrections and extensions.
For example, Jewish men, to avoid sexual temptation when approaching women, were required to lower their heads.
Philip Yancey says that some of these men were known as “bleeding Pharisees” because they frequently ran into walls and other obstacles.
Legalistically, the Pharisees seemed on solid ground with their challenge to Jesus. They were not citing an obscure or uncertain law, but one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-10: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant or your maidservant, or your cattle or the sojourner who is within your gates.”
Keep It Holy
When Jesus responded to the Pharisees, it is evident he did not believe that harvesting and eating grain in the fields were violations of the commandment (Luke 6:1-5). And in Luke 6:6-11, he asserts that healing someone is not a violation.
Actually, the commandment was not meant for the purpose of restricting what Jews did or didn’t do, but to keep the Sabbath holy: “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:11).
So God’s purpose was to keep the Sabbath a holy day, a day set apart from others.
Because God knew and knows that human beings need the Sabbath influence in their lives. The purpose of law, religious and secular, is not to restrict us, but to bring order and sanity into our personal lives and our communities.
Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, said that “sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful. Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.”
So, an activity which the Pharisees saw as a deadly sin might be consistent with the purpose of God.
The problem, then as also today, is not with the law itself, but with what different people want to do with it and make of it.
Greater Than Law
Actually, the Pharisees were using the law to stymie Jesus. As legalistic people often do, they wanted to portray him as an offender.
“On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grain fields, his disciples plucked and ate some ears of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?’ ” (6:1,2).
Work that was specifically forbidden on the Sabbath was reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing food. Technically, the disciples had broken every one of them.
In the eyes of the Pharisees this was no small transgression, and they were enraged.
In Jesus’ day, people favored a legalistic system that was sometimes in defiance of the Lawgiver.
Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple has written: “For no law, apart from a Lawgiver, is a proper object of reverence. It is mere brute fact; and every living thing, still more every person exercising intelligent choice is its superior.”
In Luke 6:5 and Matthew 12:8, when his authority to interpret the law is challenged, Jesus responds: “The Son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”
And in Matthew, in the same occurrence, Jesus responds: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).
In other words, the lawgiver God comes before the law, is greater than it and remains after the law, that is but a means to achieve God’s purpose.
Jesus also confounded the Pharisees by quoting scripture that appeared to sanction the breaking of the Sabbath of which Jesus and his disciples were accused.
Apparently he was referring to 1 Samuel 21:1-6. David was fleeing his enemies and became famished. Ahimelech, the priest, had no bread to offer him, so he gave David the holy bread of the Presence, which is forbidden except to the priests.
In God’s sight, human need came before rules of ritual.