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Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time. The reading is from Gospel of Matthew 12:1-8.

Jesus and his disciples by William Brassey Hole

Picking Grain on the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”

He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?

Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?

I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.

If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men.

For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.

Matthew here returns to the Marcan order that he left in Matthew 9:18. This story and the following story, a miracle, “Healing the Man with a Withered Hand” depend on Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6 respectively, and are the only places in either gospel that deal explicitly with Jesus’ attitude toward sabbath observance.

Here is the Marcan version of picking grain on the Sabbath.

Picking Grain on the Sabbath – Mark 2:23-28

As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.

At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”

He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?

How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?”

Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.

That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.

Here is the version from Luke.

Picking Grain on the Sabbath – Luke 6:1-5

While he was going through a field of grain on a sabbath, his disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them.

Some Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”

Jesus said to them in reply, “Have you not read what David did when he and those [who were] with him were hungry?

[How] he went into the house of God, took the bread of offering, which only the priests could lawfully eat, ate of it, and shared it with his companions.”

Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.

The picking of the heads of grain is here equated with reaping, which was forbidden on the sabbath.

  • Six days you may labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the seasons of plowing and harvesting you must rest. (Exodus 34:21)

But it is also said in Deuteronomy thus:

  • When you go through your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pluck some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain. (Deuteronomy 23:26)

In the three gospels we read what Jesus says about David and his companions eating the holy bread.

  • He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat? (Matthew 12:3-4)
  • He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?” (Mark 2:25-26)
  • Jesus said to them in reply, “Have you not read what David did when he and those [who were] with him were hungry? [How] he went into the house of God, took the bread of offering, which only the priests could lawfully eat, ate of it, and shared it with his companions.” (Luke 6:3-4)

We find the story of David and his companions in 1 Samuel.

The Holy Bread – 1 Samuel 21:2–7

David went to Ahimelech, the priest of Nob, who came trembling to meet him. He asked, “Why are you alone? Is there no one with you?”

David answered the priest: “The king gave me a commission and told me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I have sent you or the commission I have given you.’ For that reason I have arranged a particular meeting place with my men.

Now what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves, or whatever you can find.”

But the priest replied to David, “I have no ordinary bread on hand, only holy bread; if the men have abstained from women, you may eat some of that.”

David answered the priest: “We have indeed stayed away from women. In the past whenever I went out on a campaign, all the young men were consecrated—even for an ordinary campaign. All the more so are they consecrated with their weapons today!”

So the priest gave him holy bread, for no other bread was on hand except the showbread which had been removed from before the LORD and replaced by fresh bread when it was taken away.

In the Marcan parallel (Mark 2:25–26) the high priest is called Abiathar, although in 1 Samuel this action is attributed to Ahimelech.

The story in Samuel is not about a violation of the sabbath rest; its pertinence to this dispute is that a violation of the law was permissible because of David’s men being without food.

This verse

  • Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent? I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. (Matthew 12:5-6)

and the following argument Matthew 12:7 are peculiar to Matthew.

The phrase “serving in the temple” seems to be the changing of the showbread on the sabbath

  • Regularly on each sabbath day the bread shall be set out before the LORD on behalf of the Israelites by an everlasting covenant. (Leviticus 24:8)

and the doubling duty on the sabbath of the usual daily holocausts

  • On the sabbath day: two unblemished yearling lambs, with a grain offering of two tenths of an ephah of bran flour mixed with oil, and its libation. This is the sabbath burnt offering each sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation. (Numbers 28:9–10)

The argument that Jesus gives “on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?”is that the law itself requires work in the temple that breaks the sabbath rest, because of the higher duty of temple service. In other words, even the law recognized that Temple duty was more important than observance of the Sabbath rest.  If temple duties outweigh the sabbath law, how much more does the presence of Jesus, with his proclamation of the kingdom (something greater than the temple), justify the conduct of his disciples.

Matthew adds the prophetic statement of Hosea

  • For it is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

to

  • If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. (Matthew 12:7)

which he had already said earlier in

  • Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’* I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

If mercy is superior to the temple sacrifices, how much more to the laws of ritual impurity.

The ultimate justification for the disciples’ violation of the sabbath rest is that Jesus, the Son of Man, has supreme authority over the law.

  • “For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8″)
  • Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)
  • Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Luke 6:5)
  • Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” (John 5:16–17)

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