In the last essay we studied Luke 5:33-39, in which Jesus taught about fasting. In this essay we are studying Luke 6:1-11. There are two stories here, both of which them have to do with the Sabbath. In 6:1-5 we see that the disciples of Jesus were hungry and helped themselves to some heads of grain as they walked through a grain field, a practice permitted by the Mosaic Law. Deut. 23:25 says, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” Certain Pharisees who were observing the disciples objected to what they were doing, not because they were plucking and eating some of the grain, but because they were doing it on the Sabbath.
Work was forbidden on the Sabbath. And in the Pharisee’s view, the disciples’ plucking of the grain would have been harvesting; rubbing it in their hands would have been threshing; throwing away the husks would have been winnowing; and all of those together would have constituted preparation of food. According to the Pharisees, every one of those activities was work and violated the Sabbath rest. Jewish women always fixed Sabbath meals on the day before the Sabbath so that they could serve meals on the Sabbath without working.
The Pharisees expressed their objection to the activity to the disciples. But it was Jesus who answered them. He reminded them of the story, found in 1 Sam. 21:1-6, of the occasion when David went to the sanctuary at Nob and told the priest he was on a mission for the king and that he needed food for his men. The priest gave him the only food he had, the twelve loaves of the “bread of the Presence,” each one representing a tribe in Israel. The priests set the loaves before God as an offering every Sabbath. Now the law said that only priests could eat the bread of the Presence. But the priest at the sanctuary gave David the bread anyway. He only insisted that the men be ritually pure to eat it, which David assured him they were. So David took the loaves to feed his men.
Jesus’ point in using that story was to make the argument that moral obligation trumps ritual obligation. David and the priest had a moral obligation to feed the men. So the ritual obligation to use the bread only for the priests was superseded. Coming back to Jesus and his disciples, Jesus’ disciples, like David and his men, had a moral right to take the grain and eat on the Sabbath, because the human need superseded the ritual obligation not to work on the Sabbath.
Notice that the account ends with a pronouncement by Jesus, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” In Mark’s parallel, Mark records more of Jesus’ statement than Luke does. Mark writes, “Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’” (Mk. 2:27). Jesus’ point in the part of the saying recorded by Mark, but not by Luke, is that God instituted the Sabbath for man’s sake, not the other way around. That is to say, God ordained the Sabbath for the welfare of humanity. He didn’t create humanity in order to honor the Sabbath. “So the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” As the Son of Man, the Messiah, Jesus has authority over the Mosaic Law. He can reaffirm it, reinterpret it, or even abolish it if he chooses to do so.
Next, in verses 6-11, we find a story about an occasion when Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath. This story tells us about another Sabbath, when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues of Galilee. The scribes and Pharisees were present and watching, as usual. Also present was a man whose right hand is described as “withered.” The description indicates that he had some sort of muscular atrophy or paralysis in that hand. The scribes and Pharisees suspected that Jesus might cure the man, even though it was a Sabbath. And it seems they were hoping he would heal the man so that they could accuse Jesus of working on the Sabbath. Indeed they may have planted the man in the service in order to test Jesus’ willingness to keep the Sabbath regulations. In any case, the Pharisaic interpretation of the Mosaic Law at this point was clear. Medical help was permitted only in cases where one’s life was threatened, cases that could not wait until the next day. And of course, the Pharisees did not consider the healing of a withered hand to be a medical emergency. In their view, it clearly could wait until the next day.
Jesus knew their thoughts, and he decided to confront the attitude of the Pharisees. He invited the man with the withered hand to stand before him. Then he asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” This question is extremely interesting. Notice that the contrast is not between doing good and doing nothing. That choice would have allowed the Pharisees to justify doing nothing until the next day. The choice was between doing good and doing evil. The point Jesus made was subtle, but clear. To do nothing in a case like this is equivalent to doing evil. It harms the one suffering, because that person must suffer unnecessarily for another day.
Jesus looked around at those present, but no one answered him. Mark in his parallel specifically says, “they were silent.” Mark tells us something else that is helpful to us. He says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger” (Mk. 3:5). Jesus did not just look at them; he looked at them with emotion, with anger. Obviously he felt deeply about the Pharisees’ determination to keep the law legalistically, even if it was at the expense of hurting people. So Jesus told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And as the man stretched out his hand, it was healed.
What a dramatic story! It appears that Jesus intentionally challenged the Pharisees on this matter of interpretation of the Sabbath. And the challenge hit home. The scribes and Pharisees were “filled with fury,” Luke says. And they “discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Matthew and Mark in their accounts put the reaction of the Pharisees more forcefully than Luke. They say that the Pharisees went out and conspired “how to destroy him” (Mk. 3:6; Mt. 12:14). It is clear that all three Synoptic writers wanted their readers to understand that official opposition to Jesus by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem started to build against Jesus fairly early in his Galilean ministry.
Now then, when we ask how we should apply these stories about Jesus and the Sabbath to our lives, it is a bit difficult. The context was strictly Jewish, not Christian. The issue at hand was the proper understanding of the Jewish Sabbath. It had nothing to do with Christianity. These two stories make it abundantly clear that Jesus held a different view of the Jewish Sabbath rest than did the Pharisees. The Pharisees approached the Sabbath very legalistically. They believed that any unnecessary activity constituted work; and it was a violation of the Sabbath to do anything that they deemed work. By their oppressive rules the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a day of burden instead of a day of blessing, as God intended it to be.
From Jesus’ point of view, they had turned the whole matter around. Their interpretation of the Sabbath had human beings serving the Sabbath, though God intended the Sabbath to serve human beings. The Pharisees interpreted harvesting a little grain to meet a human need, or healing someone with a serious physical need, as work. Therefore to do those things constituted violations of the Sabbath. But Jesus interpreted the meeting of human need on a Sabbath as a fulfillment of its intended use, to serve humanity. That is quite a difference!