“The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David and those who were with him did when he was in need and hungry — how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the bread of the Presence — which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests — and also gave some to his companions?’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the standard excuses or arguments kids have always made with their parents when trying to either justify something they’ve done or else plead for something they want is this: “But all the other kids are doing it!” The simple logic here is that if everyone else is doing it, then it must not be a bad thing to do. Therefore, they should get to do it as well. What we know as older and wiser parents (right???) is that right and wrong is not set by group consensus, and so what all the other kids are doing is not going to have any bearing on what we do. Why am I thinking about this today? Because it seems like Jesus was using this kind of reasoning here and I’m not sure what to do about it.
I’m going to describe in some more detail here what is going on in this story, but I’m not going to offer any real answers today. Today, I’m just going to wonder a bit with you.
Jesus and the crew were moving from one place to another. Mark doesn’t give us any details on where or why. It was the Sabbath and so the likelihood is that they weren’t going far. The Law set out in detail just what counted as work and the Pharisees didn’t call Jesus out for their walking too far. They may have just been heading back home after a morning at the synagogue.
Wherever they were heading, their path took them through a field of some kind of grain. They were hungry and so as they went, they were picking the heads off the stalks and snacking on the seeds. This violated the prohibition against Sabbath work according to the Talmud. The Pharisees saw their opening and pounced: Why are you letting your disciples violate the Law?
Jesus’ response is really interesting. Notice a few different things. First, He doesn’t contradict or deny the premise of their question. He accepts it. Yes, according to their law—not THE Law, though—His disciples had done what is not lawful on the Sabbath. It was true. Subsequent interpretations of the Sabbath command to do no work specifically included what the disciples had done. But, that’s what they added, not what God had said.
Second, although He accepted the premise of their question, the way He phrased His question in response would have made the point that they were out of line in asking it without being explicit. These were man who studied the Law…well…religiously. Of course they had read the passage Jesus mentions. They had it memorized word for word. They could have recited the whole thing on the spot for Him if He had wanted them to. What’s more, they both knew He knew that. He wasn’t suggesting they hadn’t read it, but that they hadn’t understood it.
Third, and this is where things get really interesting, it seems like Jesus is using David’s violation of what was actually written in the Law and not just interpretation to justify what His disciples had done. It’s like He is saying, “David broke the Law and you don’t seem to have any issues with him, so why are you fussing about what My followers have done?”
Is that what Jesus is doing?
The reality is this is a point where modern interpreters have to offer their best guesses and go from there. Like I said before, I don’t have any hard answers for you. I can say Jesus wasn’t advocating for the normalization of lawbreaking. He never violated the Law of Moses Himself. But, He also didn’t view the Talmud as on the same level as the Torah. Not even close.
With my cards revealed that I don’t have any firm answers on this one, allow me to humbly offer a suggestion. This comes in light of what Jesus was about to say and which we’ll talk about tomorrow. Jesus was working to lay a foundation for them to understand that God’s Law was (and is) always given for the good of God’s people. The people are first in importance and then the Law.
The Pharisees had gradually come to a point at which they were tending to worship the Law (and the things they said about it) more than the God who gave it. When this happened, upholding the Law became more important to them than caring for the people for whose benefit it was supposed to be. That was never what God intended. And perhaps, it is the lack of condemnation of David’s actions in the story He mentions that was intended to help make His point. David did what was clearly unlawful, but he did it because his need was great.
Now, this doesn’t mean God’s Word should be subjugated to human whims. We are not the final arbiters of what is right and what is wrong. God is. But, He always acts for our benefit. If a command seems to not be for our benefit, the reason is that we either don’t understand the command or else we don’t understand our need. God is for what’s best for us, and being like Him is ultimately best for us. Thus, the commands are always aimed at shaping us in that direction. God loves us and His commands are for our good. Always. That should be the lens through which we understand them. The Pharisees didn’t use it and so were off track. Let’s learn from their mistake.