Day 113: Matthew 12:4-5

Have you never read what David did that time when he and his men were hungry?  He went into the house of God, and he and his men ate the bread offered to God, even though it was against the Law for them to eat it – only the priests were allowed to eat that bread.

Or have you not read in the Law of Moses that every Sabbath the priests in the Temple actually break the Sabbath law, yet they are not guilty?

This is the first of three scriptures where Jesus debates with the Pharisees about the Sabbath.

About the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat)

The Sabbath is one of the most important of the Laws of Moses.  It is of paramount importance to the Jewish people.  Here is the commandment about the Sabbath that was handed down to Moses (Exodus 31:12-17):

The Lord commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel, “Keep the Sabbath, my day of rest, because it is a sign between you and me for all time to come, to show that I, the Lord, have made you my own people. You must keep the day of rest, because it is sacred. Whoever does not keep it, but works on that day, is to be put to death. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a solemn day of rest dedicated to me. Whoever does any work on that day is to be put to death. The people of Israel are to keep this day as a sign of the covenant. It is a permanent sign between the people of Israel and me, because I, the Lord, made heaven and earth in six days, and on the seventh day I stopped working and rested.”

The Sabbath is good for both the body and the soul.  Before this Law ordinary people worked seven days a week.  They didn’t worship together at the same time and place – people worshipped whenever they had a free moment.  Every day was the same as the day before it.  There was no day off, no weekend, no rhythm of the week.  The concept of the Sabbath is a great blessing.  It gives everyone a day to rest and enjoy a little leisure.  It was a great and profound social innovation.  The “day off.”  And, as you can see, for the Hebrews the consequences of failing to observe the Sabbath was punishable by death.

There are four basic Sabbath Laws:

  1. Not to travel outside the limits of residence (Ex 16:29) – “Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day and not leave his home.”
  2. To sanctify it (Ex. 20:8) – “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
  3. Not to do work (Ex 20:10) – “But the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me.  On that day no one is to work – neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country.”
  4. To rest (Ex. 23:12, 34:21, 35:2-3) – “Work six days a week, but do no work on the seventh day, so that your slaves and the foreigners who work for you and even your animals can rest.” and “You have six days in which to do your work, but do not work on the seventh day, not even during plowing time or harvest.”

The problem with these laws is that they are pretty vague and God left it up to the people to figure out what “work” and “rest” meant.  These vagaries are what Jesus and the Pharisees were always fussing about.  Even today Jewish congregations have different rules regarding specific activities that are permitted and restricted on the Sabbath.


Walking to synagogue.

We lived for 10 years in a Jewish neighborhood and we observed that some of the most restrictive rules are the prohibition of automobiles, cooking, and writing.  In addition, they are not allowed to flip any electrical switches on the Sabbath, so they either have to be sure the lights are on when Sabbath starts or get a Gentile to come and do it for them.

On the other hand, it’s not a sober, serious day of prayer or anything like that.  They can take walks, play games, tell jokes, and engage in many other recreational activities as long as they are reasonably “restful” and relaxing.  Although they can’t cook, they can eat whatever they want.  The evening Sabbath meal is prepared in advance and kept warm.  The afternoon meal the next day is usually a crock pot stew that is started before the Sabbath begins and cooks overnight.  Afternoon naps are common, and couples are encouraged to have sex. Of course they go to evening and morning services at the synagogue.  There is a lot of walking back and forth on the Sabbath. It’s like a parade.

Back to Today’s Scripture…

Now that we’ve got a little background on this Sabbath business, here’s the lead in to today’s scripture:

Not long afterward Jesus was walking through some wheat fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began to pick heads of wheat and eat the grain. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Jesus, “Look, it is against our Law for your disciples to do this on the Sabbath!”

Jesus allowed his disciples to pick and eat some wheat on the Sabbath because they had no other source of food.  The problem with the disciples’ action is that they were “harvesting” the wheat, which is a form of “work” which is expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses.  This is a violation of the Sabbath, and, technically, a capital offense.

Jesus defends himself with two instances where Sabbath Laws are bent.  One is a story about King David and the other is an ongoing debate about the actions of the priests.

The first is a story in 1 Samuel 21 when the priest Ahimelech gives David the holy bread from the temple to give to his men because they need something to eat.  The fact that a priest bent the rules so that David could provide for his men is being referenced by Jesus.  He’s bringing it up because it is now what we would refer to as a legal precedent.  Like a lawyer, Jesus argues that his situation is similar.

The second refers to the work of the Priests in the temple.  The priests were required to kindle the lights in the Sanctuary every day, to offer up incense twice daily, and to keep the altar fire going at all times.  All of these things require fire.  Exodus 35:3 says, “Do not even light a fire in your homes on the Sabbath,” which was interpreted by the Jews to be a total prohibition on all fire lighting.  Period.  Also, it could be argued that all of the things that the priests did to keep the Temple going on Sabbath was “work” and therefore a violation of Sabbath law.  Again, in legal terms, the priestly activities are an “exclusion” from the Law.  Jesus implies that if there are exclusions for priests, there can be exclusions for others who are doing God’s work.

While both Jesus and the Pharisees generally agreed on a reasoned, pragmatic approach to the Law of Moses, the Sabbath rules were continually a source of conflict.  Even today the dialogue continues among the Jews.  It also continues among the rest of us.  Is it appropriate for stores to serve liquor on Sunday?  Should the bars be open?  How about stores or car dealerships?  When I was young almost everything was closed on Sunday and today almost everything is open.

God tells us that we all need to take a day off.  This is one of those Laws of Moses that we need to preserve.  Everyone should have a day of rest.  I don’t think it needs to be on a particular day, but we all need to have a day that we can look forward to where we don’t have to work.  I also think the churches should provide worship opportunities on days other than Sunday to accommodate all those people who have to work on the weekends so they can have a day of rest that includes worship.


So the next time you say TGIF, remember that it’s truly appropriate because Friday night is when the Sabbath begins and it is indeed is a gift from God for which we should give thanks.  Without the Law of Moses you would be working 7 days a week.  And furthermore, when you look forward to that weekend off you can thank the Jews for keeping the Sabbath holy.  They were the ones who paved the way for you to have that time off through their faithfulness, stubbornness, and obedience so that it might eventually catch on and become a social convention for all people regardless of religion, all around the world.  And you can also thank the Pharisees.  Nobody protected your weekend more vociferously than the Pharisees.  They were the original weekend warriors.

What does this scripture say to you?


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