Matthew 12:1-7 (NIV) At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Right on cue, the Pharisees provided an opportunity for Jesus to show clearly the contrast between His light and easy yoke and the hard, burdensome yoke that the Pharisees insisted on putting on people (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). The disciples were doing nothing wrong. In fact, the law actually allowed hungry travelers to pick grain and fruit from the fields, orchards, and vineyards they passed, as long as they only picked what they could eat on the spot (Deuteronomy 23:24-25).
What the Pharisees were objecting to was that the disciples were (by the Pharisees’ definition, not God’s) breaking the laws against doing work on the Sabbath. By their definition, picking grain was harvesting (even though they had no sickle, and were merely picking a few grain heads to eat on their way), rubbing the kernels in their hands to remove the hulls was threshing, and chewing the grains was milling, using their teeth to grind the grain into flour.
The Pharisees wanted Jesus to call His disciples on what they saw as the heinous sin of Sabbath breaking. But Jesus wasn’t going to do that. He knew that the rules they were referencing were man’s rules that had made the Sabbath an onerous duty, not the real, God-given commands that were designed to allow man to rest from his labors one day each week.
Instead, Jesus gave the Pharisees two illustrations to show how God’s rules were more flexible and adaptive than those that had been added by people. The first happened when David was fleeing from King Saul, and had to flee so quickly that he had no time to gather supplies for himself and his men. The priest, Ahimelech, gave him the consecrated bread that only the priests could legally eat. (1 Samuel 21:6). But God wasn’t so hard and fast on his rules that people were required to go hungry when there was perfectly good bread right inside His tabernacle.
The second illustration is taken from the fact that the priests do their work of leading prayers and making sacrifices in the temple, even on the Sabbath, but God didn’t count that as a violation of the Sabbath laws. When faced with a choice of obeying God’s command to make the Sabbath sacrifices, or obeying the Sabbath law that forbids them working on the Sabbath, they chose, correctly, to obey the work that God had called them to.
Jesus pointed these Pharisees to the words God spoke through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6), that God wanted His people to reflect His character by showing mercy to others even more than he wanted their sacrifices. (Also see Isaiah 10:11-20.) When these Pharisees saw their rules as more important than caring about the hunger of the disciples, they betrayed a heart that was massively different from God’s heart. And, unless they softened their hearts, it would prove to be their undoing.
Father, we can be really good at keeping the rules, and still have hard hearts toward others that completely negate any good that comes from our keeping the rules. Soften our hearts, Lord, so that they are filled with mercy, just like Your heart. Amen.