As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain. At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?” He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”Mark 2:23-28
Picking Grain on the Sabbath
Rumors of religious laxity circulated concerning Jesus and his disciples. Not only failing to fast twice a week like the Pharisees, they scandalously dined with “tax collectors and sinners.” Lest the new rabbi lead people astray, the Pharisees kept an eye on them to call out their transgressions.
Thus, on the heels of Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees caught them in the act of plucking grain on the Sabbath. In their strict interpretation of the Shabbat laws, picking grain by hand amounted to reaping, one of the 39 prohibited activities known as melachot. These rules were so culturally embedded, no one disputed them. Jesus himself did not cite, as many commentators do, the Mosaic law permitting grain plucking in a neighbor’s field (Deuteronomy 23:25(26)). Instead, assuming their legal framework, he cited the historical precedent of David and his companions consuming the holy bread reserved for priests (1 Samuel 21:2-7).
Showbread for David and His Men
In flight from the murderous Saul, David fled to the priestly city of Nob. Simulating a mission from the king, David requested bread for his famished men from Ahimelech the priest. The only bread on hand was the showbread, recently removed from the sanctuary and replaced by fresh loaves. But since Levitical laws reserved this bread for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 24:9), Ahimelech offered the loaves on the condition that the men were ritually pure. Consecrated for their expedition, David’s militia met the priest’s requirements and lawfully consumed the bread.
By referencing this story, Jesus demonstrated that “the sabbath rest is not violated by serving God and neighbor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 582). For rabbinic tradition judged the actions of Ahimelech positively: his application of the law saved David, the anointed king of Israel. God himself approved the decision by ultimately transferring Saul’s kingdom to David.
Lord of the Sabbath
In light of Jesus’ claim to be the messianic son of David, the story suggests that he and his disciples, like their predecessors, acted within the law. By permitting his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to relieve their hunger, Jesus honored the God of hesed (mercy, lovingkindness). Instead of freeing people to embrace God and neighbor, scrupulous rules instilled fear of committing minor infractions. Jesus presented the Sabbath in light of its true end: man’s participation in God’s rest as a sign of their everlasting covenant, which replenishes and gives life (Exodus 31:13). The Son of Man, who is Lord of the Sabbath, fulfilled the law perfectly.
The Sabbath was made for man,
not man for the Sabbath.
3 Replies to “The Sabbath Was Made for Man”
Whether the grain picked by Jesus’ followers was corn or wheat, I cannot imagine eating it right from the plant. Corn not steamed with butter? Wheat not crushed into flour to make bread? Either they were truly hungry, or they pocketed it for a meal later. Sabbath rules are burdensome when taken literally. To “keep” the day holy implies doing not refraining. A day set apart from daily work tasks allows for extra rest and time with family. Being retired, I no longer have the daily commute to job. Sabbath time means a quieter day, no roar of school buses, cemetery walk in nature, listening to favorite music, making connections by email or phone, and celebrating Sunday liturgy.
In conversation once with a pastoral minister in my parish, we discussed what does “refrain from work on Sunday” mean. Her understanding was “you are allowed two hours of work.” Hmmmm.
I’ve heard of cases when employees resisted working on Sunday, but were forced to. Even one case recently went to court. Many “essential” workers do have to take Sunday shifts in rotation.
Sabbath understanding has evolved since Mosaic time. Yet the meaning is clearly to have a respite from burdens, allowing more time to be present to God and neighbor.
The Catechism has some guidelines for how to understand the Sabbath, which is meant to be restorative.
Thanks for your reference to the Catechism. Restorative is the operative word. A day of grace and rest from work. From the Catholic Catechism:
2184 Just as God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,” human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.
2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.