Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26 how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” 27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” [KA1] -Mark 2:23-28
It is often said that Jesus led a life of poverty. That may be true, but I prefer to think of it as a life of simplicity, without complications. Jesus and his Apostles had money- Judas is mentioned as the one who held the “money bag” (John 12:6). They could purchase necessities when necessary. They did not sit on the street corners and beg. They paid their own way when necessary. They lived frugally.
At least some of the Apostles owned homes. Peter and Andrew lived in Bethsaida, yet also owned a home in Capernaum (John 1:44; Matthew 8:14). It seems Jesus called Peter’s house in Capernaum “home.”
Picking heads of grain on the Sabbath was not an offense against Mosaic law. Deuteronomy 23:25 provided for the right of the poor to follow the harvesters in the fields and glean what was dropped and left behind. Gleaning was not stealing. It was a way of providing for the poor. But the Rabbis made additional rules about picking grain on the Sabbath. According to Rabbinic law, the disciples were sinning by reaping, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food on the Sabbath.
In Jesus’ day the Rabbis held to many elaborate and farcical laws governing the sabbath. Ancient Rabbis taught that on the Sabbath, a man could not carry something in his right hand or in his left hand, across his chest or on his shoulder. But you could carry something with the back of your hand, with your foot, with your elbow, or in your ear, your hair, or the hem of your shirt, or your shoe or your sandal. Or on the Sabbath, you were forbidden to tie a knot – except a woman could tie a knot in her girdle. So, if a bucket of water had to be raised from a well, you could not tie a rope to the bucket, but a woman could tie her girdle to the bucket.
Jesus never violated the Mosaic Sabbath day laws, but he did ignore the ridiculous rules of the Rabbis, Scribes, and Pharisees. The Sabbath was meant to serve man: “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” This is what many people, of every generation, cannot accept: that love to others is more important than religious ritual; that what God really wants is mercy before sacrifice (Hosea 6:6); that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart; these, O God You will not despise (Psalm 51:17). Any application of the Sabbath Law which operates to the detriment of man is out of harmony with God’s purpose.
Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the creator of the Sabbath. He is the interpreter of what is right and wrong on the Sabbath. He was not offended with what his disciples were doing, so neither should anyone else be offended.
New Testament Christians observe sabbath days after the example and instruction of Christ. We hold no particular day of the week sacred, but Christians assemble on various days of the week. Our Sabbath day is any day when our brothers and sisters have agreed to assemble to hear God’s Word preached and taught, to baptize the babies and converts, and to receive the Lord’ Supper. We ought not be tied to some tradition- or day of traditions- concerning the Sabbath. Rather, we should commit ourselves to honoring God’s Word and Sacrament by attending and participating with our brothers and sisters whenever they have agreed to gather.
Of course in these days of the pandemic, other considerations apply. The vulnerable among us are still advised to avoid large gatherings. Seniors in senior care centers are not allowed in or out of the facility. Some choose, after prayer and careful consideration, to keep the family home rather than possibly expose them to the virus. They make use of alternatives like online worship services and private communion with the pastor. Jesus does not judge them, nor do we.
The Christian Sabbath is any day when we are gathered together to hear preaching and God’s Word and receive the Supper of our Lord. Rejoice and be glad at every opportunity! Set your priorities so that you are able to join with your congregation when it meets. Keep praying for an end to the pandemic so that all of God’s people are able to gather together again. Always remember: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.