Today we’re looking at two disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees on the subject of the Sabbath. Today we’re going to think about being watched, seeing the heart of the Law and seeing Jesus as Lord. As usual, the passage can be read on BibleGateway here.
This is the second time the disciples have come in for criticism, yesterday, they were criticised for not fasting, and here, they get it for picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. It’s important to point out that they were not being accused of stealing, the taking by hand of a few heads of grain was allowed under the Law (Deuteronomy 23:25). The problem, as seen by the Pharisees, was that the disciples were harvesting by picking the grain and threshing it by rubbing it in their hands and were deemed to be working on the Sabbath.
There are times when we need to be observed, sometimes it’s to ensure competence in a given area, such as a driving test or perhaps we are called to speak in public when it’s not something we’re used to. Either way, the pressure is deeply unpleasant, things we do without any difficulty are suddenly impossible, even something like speaking. For the disciples, this level of scrutiny was new, they had lived quiet lives for the most part but here they were, having their every move noted. What must have made it more difficult, is that the disciples were being used as pawns by the Pharisees to get at Jesus. They criticised the disciples but they were aiming at him. For Jesus himself, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have his every move watched, as those who hated him searched for a weakness. That they failed so completely to find any grounds to accuse him says something of his character; he was without sin. This matters to us, because if you follow Jesus, you will be watched, your life matters, because most of the people you meet will not read the bible, but they will read you.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees shows a very different attitude to the Law. He gave an example from the Old Testament (1 Samuel 21:1-6) where the needs of a group of men were placed above keeping the Law. David was fleeing from King Saul who wanted to kill him. David arrived at the tabernacle with virtually nothing. After seeking the will of the Lord (1 Samuel 22:9-10), Ahimelech the priest gave David the consecrated bread from the tabernacle, even though it should not have been taken. It showed that God cared more about people than rituals. We get fresh insight from Mark’s account where Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Sabbath regulations were intended to benefit people; they were never intended to make people hungry.
The second incident looks suspiciously like a ‘set up’. Jesus is in the Synagogue on the Sabbath; also present is a man whose hand is withered and the Pharisees, to witness whether Jesus would heal the man, a problem because healing was classed as work (of course it was). They had become so entrenched in their thinking, they failed to see; God was working, Jesus was proving with miracles that he was the Messiah and they were blind to the man’s needs. Looking once more at Mark’s account, we see one of the few incidents where Jesus is described as being angry. He writes; “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts,” Matthew states that Jesus said to the Pharisees; “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Jesus’ argument reveals the worthlessness of the Pharisees’ legal judgments. When worship becomes about ticking off things on a list, we can even end up being opposed to God.
We know from the New Testament that crossing the Pharisees and teachers of the Law was extremely dangerous. These people had real power, they could pressurise the authorities into causing huge problems or even executing anyone they didn’t like. Jesus knew the danger; he probably knew that his words and actions would make them very angry. Yet he fearlessly spoke the truth. He described himself as the Lord of the Sabbath; he could compare himself and his disciples with David, Israel’s greatest King, and his men, he had the authority to reinterpret the Law and he could heal a man with a withered hand instantly. Jesus constantly placed himself in harm’s way – he exposed himself to danger. He did it when he spoke up in defence of his disciples and he did it when he healed the man in the second incident. Ultimately, that’s what he did on the cross he suffered for those who could not help themselves, people like me and you.
Thank you Lord that you care about people, thank you that Jesus was prepared to take my place even though he was perfect. Help us Lord to know when to take a stand for you and when to remain silent.