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One Shabbat, while Yeshua was passing through some wheat fields, his disciples began plucking the heads of grain, rubbing them between their hands and eating the seeds. Some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you violating Shabbat?” Yeshua answered them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the House of God and took and ate the Bread of the Presence” — which no one is permitted to eat but the priests. “The Son of Man,” he concluded, “is Lord of Shabbat.”

Luke provides a sequence of controversy stories in which he follows Mark, his source, quite closely, but with a freedom that lets him change some phrases. Generally speaking, as I’ve noted, Luke is less bold than Mark, some of whose more provocative phrases he tones down or omits altogether.

Mark (2: 23-28) gives the story of the event in much the same way as Luke, and the first thing to note about it, is how odd it is. Where are these Pharisees that they can see such a small casual action by Jesus’ disciples? Are they hiding in the wheat fields? And would they really, (although it’s possible legally) have judged them to be “preparing food on Shabbat” for that is the substance of their complaint. And why, when the question is about Shabbat, does Jesus answer by referring to quite a different breach of holy law by David?  And if the disciples had actually been hungry, as David’s men were, would eating seeds have done them much good? There is a lack of coherence in the narrative which stamps it in its present form as a community memory of Jesus which has undergone considerable development.

Matthew (12: 1-8) sees the problem with the story and instead of concentrating just on the Shabbat he focuses also on the temple, criticising its focus on ritual rather than kindness, and quoting Jesus’ claim that he is greater than the temple – material which in other gospels occurs eleswhere. He omits however the sentence which Mark uses to sum up the whole matter, “Shabbat was made for human beings, not human beings for Shabbat.”SHABBAT

Luke also omits that sentence, and he does not include the material on the issue of the temple that Matthew uses. He does add the phrase, “Rubbing them between their hands”, which gives the precise reason for the Pharisees’ dismay; that they are preparing food.

Jesus’ defense gives the impression that David simply entered the holy place (there was no actual temple) and took the bread of the presence, which consisted of twelve loaves laid out in the holy place, and changed each week, when the priests were allowed to eat the old bread. In the story from 1st Samuel, Abiathar the chief priest accepts that it is a situation of need -David and his men have had no food- and that the men are ritually clean – they have not recently had sex. For these reasons he feels able to give them the used bread. Jesus quotes the story as if it justifed breaking the law in the case of real hunger. It does not do so, and it is doubtful if the “hunger” felt by Jesus and his disciples is a real need. Luke however simply accepts the story, because it makes a positive connection between Jesus and the great king David. Luke has emphasised that Jesus comes from the line of David and presents him as the true Messiah throughout his gospel. So here he shows Jesus acting with some of the sovereign freedom of his great predecessor, making the point that the need of God’s kingly servant and his followers is more important than the Torah.

The phrase “Son of Man” indicates a corporate identity, which might be defined by the words in italics in the previous sentence, and therefore might include David and his men as well as Jesus and his disciples. This phrase is found in all three gospel accounts and points to the freedom over the Torah Law enjoyed by the early Christian communities. This was not a freedom to dispense with the Law but rather to interpret it in the spirit of Jesus. The phrase “Lord of Shabbat” is very bold, as it might easily mean the Lord God whose “rest day” was passed on to his creatures. The “Son of Man” shares something of the authority of God.

sabbathThe principle of interpreting the Law which Mark recommends is contained in the words “For Shabbat was made for humanity; not humanity for Shabbat”. This is a very radical way of undertsanding God’s Law: it is given for human benefit, and must never be interpreted as if it was more important than human benefit. It can be applied not just to Jewish Torah but also to any rules of life that derive from Jesus and his community. Perhaps Luke missed this out because the communities he wrote for no longer observed Shabbat, but the next day, the first of the week, the Lord’s Day.


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