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."
First, what are the Pharisees talking about? Moses said that this is lawful:
"If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain." (Deuteronomy 23:25)
But why do they say this is unlawful? One can only assume, knowing how the Pharisees had a knack for applying the hardest interpretation to the law, that they considered this to be work, and therefore unlawful on the Sabbath:
"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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates." (Exodus 20:8-10)
Well, there you go - don't work on the Sabbath. But is it really work to casually pluck some grain as you go from point A to point B? That same passage in Deuteronomy mentions having a couple grapes as you walk through the vineyard, just don't be filling your bag up with grapes for later. I remember as a child going to edge of the corn field near our house and grabbing a few ears for dinner that night. It wasn't Indiana sweetcorn by any stretch, and we were harvesting bushels. We didn't have a lot in the way of money, so grabbing a couple ears of corn for dinner was something in our belly. (Don't misunderstand - we weren't starving, but pickin's were sometimes slim when it came time to prepare a meal. Ask me about apples and onions sometime.)
There is a passage in Proverbs that I read recently that reminds me of this:
Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the LORD?" or
lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
How many times have you heard mentioned in conversation about ethics/morals the scenario of the mother stealing bread to feed her starving children? This situation of the disciples plucking some grain isn't necessarily the same thing, but the principle remains the same. God is not so concerned with semantics or "the letter of the law" as much as He is with the welfare and meeting the needs of His children. It is this very thing that Jesus makes reference to when He speaks of David, in need and hungry, eating the bread of the Presence.
Here in Leviticus 24, we read about the Bread of the Presence:
"You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD's food offerings, a perpetual due." (Leviticus 24:5-9)
Then, in 1 Samuel 21, David and his companions eat of this bread because they were hungry. There it is: they were hungry. There was no malicious intent, no thought of David's to take the bread from the temple as a joke or because they were too lazy to get bread somewhere else. They were hungry.
This is where Jesus qualifies the whole thing: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". The Sabbath was not supposed to be a burden. It's a day of rest from the six previous days of work. Yet, the religious traditions and legalism of the Pharisees had made the Sabbath possibly more cumbersome than the rest of the week.
Man has quite a talent of doing this to so many things. For example, taxes. Look at the tax code in the United States. It is so overwhelming that one often needs a specialized tax lawyer or accountant to make certain that no violation has been made by accident. It's really reflective of the human heart. We know that we must contribute to the collective. It's just a reality of living in community with other people. However, all too often we want something for nothing. We quickly affirm that the load is lightened when the many contribute. Yet, we want to be excepted. When the municipal government comes calling for our due, we want loopholes and deductions and credits. Rather than fork over what we know we owe, we would rather wade through an ocean of red tape, moaning and groaning over every penny, like the little child that keeps a tight grip on that toy when their parents have just told them, "Share that with your brother".
You can imagine the same thing happening over the centuries in Israel. People coming to the priests asking them just exactly where the line was between "Do not covet" and "Healthy ambition", or just what exactly do you mean by "do not work on the Sabbath"? We want details, specifics, the line clearly demarcating right from wrong. Rather than flee evil, we want to court it while staying on the "good" side of the line. Ask the leaders of your local church's teens group... how many times do they hear questions about, "is holding hands alright?" or "is it OK to kiss on a date?" or "where is the line between making out and going all the way?" The heart betrays itself.
Eventually, you end up with a 2000 page book with rules for every conceivable situation. Contrast that with Mark 12:30-31:
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'
The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
This is what Jesus means when He says that His yoke is light. The yoke that religious tradition lays on people is heavy.
I find that God's timing is impeccable (as always) in regard that I'd be studying this passage during this time of year. Over the next couple weeks, it will prove difficult to ignore all of the references to Halloween. There are few holidays more overtly challenging to the Christian's testimony, while also providing opportunity for us to respond to others in a Christ-like manner to the "in your face" issues that are unavoidable with Halloween.
The responses to Halloween, just within my church, nearly cover the spectrum. I know there are those that participate in activities from trick-or-treating to going to costume parties. There are those that will turn off the lights and retreat inside, pretending that nothing is different that night versus another. Then there are those that will espouse "Reformation Day" as being the true holiday on October 31. I'm not going to go into what my family does here, but I'm not going to go off on anyone else either.
The application to Mark 2:23-28 is this: Where is your heart? Where is MY heart? The Pharisees looked on at the disciples plucking some grain and judged them as having broken a law. A man-made law to be sure, but they had elevated it to the same level (or maybe higher) than God's Law. Was their interpretation of the Sabbath law wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. What was wrong was their putting it on everyone else. If their conscience bore witness that they felt it a sin to pick grain on the Sabbath, then for them it was a sin. But to put that on their fellow man... is also a sin.
Some of the churches in my community offer Halloween alternatives. They have cookouts and games for the kids and hay rides. Some have "trunk-or-treats" where members of the church give the children candy and toys in the parking lot... presumably out of the trunk of the car. If I choose to take my family to such an event, there is nothing wrong with that. But I do have to ask, where is my heart? Am I doing that so that I can look down on other families that dress up in costume and go door to door getting candy? Am I doing that because I'm afraid of what others might think of me? That cuts both ways, you know? Often the "fear of man" card is thrown out there when a Christian is afraid to do something because non-Christians might think poorly of him. But sometimes, that same Christian may be doing something because he's more concerned about what the other people in his church will think of him.
Maybe he has fun dressing his kids up in their favorite cartoon character outfits and driving around to family and friends houses, letting the kids get some candy, and getting to see some relatives/friends that he doesn't get to see too often. But he and his wife are buddies with other families at church... and they're not doing "trick or treat"... they're going to the bonfire.
So... where is your heart? Where is my heart? Am I seeking to please God? Or man?
This Halloween, when we are presented with this litmus test of our faith/heart, will we be thinking about 1 Timothy 1:15 and Matthew 7:3-5?
"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." (1 Timothy 1:15)
"Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5)