When reading the Gospels, a lot of the narratives we can immediately relate to or at least understand. But this emphasis on the Sabbath—It seems pretty odd to most modern readers. It was a sore subject between the religious leaders and Jesus over and over and over and over. At times it looks like Jesus was purposefully picking a fight with them over this issue.
God had told the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath. It had made his “top ten” list, so it was pretty important to him. To most of us, it seems pretty clear. But what constitutes “work”? Over time, the religious leaders had erected a series of fences around the Sabbath so that you wouldn’t even come close to breaking it. If the Lord set up a barrier not to cross, then you wanted to stay a certain distance away from it. For example, women were ordered not to look in a mirror on the Sabbath, because if they saw a grey hair they would be tempted to pluck it out, and that would be work. It appears that the intentions were good, but you all know the saying about where that can lead.
And we see a confrontation over that issue here again. Jesus and his disciples were walking, and they took heads of grain, rubbed the heads together to open them, and ate. This was specifically sanctioned under the Torah: It was a way for land owners to offer charity to their neighbors, and the Lord allowed people passing by a field to do this. But again the teachers of the Law had added tradition to what God had said—You could pick crops, but to rub grains together was threshing, and thus working on the Sabbath.
So Jesus countered their traditions with God’s word, which he regularly did. He pointed them back to the story of David and his men, which is recorded in 1 Sam. 21:1-6. David’s group was fleeing from King Saul, and they hadn’t eaten for days. They came to Ahimelech the priest and asked him for food. The only food available was the bread which, under God’s law, was only supposed to be eaten by the priests. But David asked anyway, and the priest gave. And according to Jesus, the Author of Scripture, it was right--in this instance--to go against God’s law.
Now we have to be very careful here. In this day and age, when accountability to any type of rules is laughed at, I’m extremely reluctant to discourage rule following. If anything, the church in this society desperately needs a reminder that God doesn’t offer suggestions. If I say that “People are more important than rules,” then folks can easily misinterpret it and see a false dichotomy between following rules and loving people. But notice Jesus’ reasoning here: The Sabbath was made for man. One of the primary reasons why God gave us boundaries was for our benefit, to protect and help us. His purpose was to help us, not load us down with unnecessary burdens. Behind every rule and law is a Father’s love. But there are circumstances, few and far between, in which people’s benefit outweighs strict rule-following. During World War 2, lots of people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. If a Nazi soldier came in and asked “Are there any Jews hiding here?” then strict truth-telling would dictate that you say “Yes sir, they’re in my closet right over there.” Do you honestly think that this is what the Lord would want you to do? But if you think that this is a license to ignore God’s instructions whenever we feel like it, then you haven’t been reading this devotional for very long. And you’ve even missed the point of the first part of this paragraph.
And there’s something else to keep in mind here. Jesus was not advocating going against God’s law (which he never would), but against their traditions. God had specifically allowed something, and their interpretation was actually nullifying that.
And then we come to one of the most shocking statements in this Gospel. It’s true that John’s Gospel is the most explicit in testifying to the deity of Christ—In fact that’s one of its main themes. But the other Gospel writers believed in the deity of Christ as well, and there’s proof right here. He told them that he’s the One who has the ultimate authority to interpret how the Sabbath should be obeyed. Why? Because he’s the Lord of the Sabbath. Who instituted the Sabbath again? That’s right—God. So when he’s making this claim, there’s only one conclusion to reach.
So what lessons can we draw here? First, it’s entirely possible to care about following rules more than about people, especially as we mature as believers. Second, I need to be very careful not to elevate my traditions and interpretations above what God clearly says. Third, if there’s any question about how to interpret a book, why not go to the Author on a regular basis and ask him about it?
Lord Jesus, am I guilty of imitating the Pharisees? If I am, then please set me straight. You’re the Boss, and my interpretation of your word needs to come straight from you. Anything that comes from man is worthless at best.