6 Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, 4 how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the [a]consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?” 5 And He was saying to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
We have here the first of two conflicts that Christ will have about the Sabbath.
The keeping of the Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments carved on stone tablets. When God spoke to Moses, this is how the commandment was given:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who [a]stays with you. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
It was again reiterated in Exodus 31
12 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 13 “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. 14 Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15 For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. 16 So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to [o]celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ 17 It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”
Deuteronomy 5:15 details the purpose of the Sabbath, as a representation of how God had delivered Israel from a life of hard labor and slavery in Egypt and had given them rest.
So if you’re like me, and for that matter, like the ancient Jews, your thoughts are, “Okay, what does God consider work? Because ‘work’ is pretty general. “
In Exodus 35:3, Moses prohibits the people from starting a fire on the Sabbath. Numbers 15:32 details the story of a man who gathered wood on the Sabbath was put to death by the people for breaking the commandment.
No work is to be done on the Sabbath. The words used in the Bible which are translated into English as “work” are the Hebrew words kol–m’law·khaw meaning “all and any kind of creative ‘generative’ endeavor, changes to the environment or any object.”
I found this expanded list of Sabbath requirements while doing research
In order to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word melakha, the Sages specified 39 categories of endeavor which are not allowed on the Sabbath (in addition to the direct commands shown above). These are generally thought of as being derived from those tasks which were required in the building of the Holy Temple. It is important to understand that these are general categories. For instance, mowing the lawn could fit into a few of these categories, including plowing, reaping or harvesting.
It should be kept in mind that the main command concerning the Sabbath says to make it “holy.” This means that we are to separate and dedicate the entire day to G-d and the study of His holy Torah. This may take some getting used to, but this is the ultimate goal and purpose for G-d’s appointed times
So, with this understanding, we should approach the passage. Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field. In accordance with another law of Moses, parts of the field have been left unharvested, so that the poor and travelers within the land could harvest the fruit or grain and eat. The disciples are hungry and having no food with them, begin to take the grain, rub it in their hands to separate out the chaff, and eat it raw.
Some Pharisees happen to see it and confront Jesus about it. To the Pharisee, this act would be reaping or harvesting. It was against the Sabbath law, and in the old days before the Roman occupation, the disciples might have been arrested and shunned or even executed. Granted, this was based on their traditions of what work was. But given the example of manna in the Wilderness where Israel was expected to harvest enough food in advance of the day and refrain from going outside to gather on the Sabbath, they could make a decent case that the disciples were breaking the Sabbath commandment.
Jesus, however, goes back to the story of King David. When David had just fled from King Saul, he came to the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was. There, he asked the priests for food and a weapon. There was no food available, save for what was called the show bread.
Exodus 25:30 commanded that the Israelites always have presence bread or showbread laid out on a table before the Lord as an offering.
David told the priests to bring him the bread for he and his men and the priests complied with the provision that none of the men had engaged that day in intercourse. After David swears that to be the case, the priest relents and gives the bread to David, violating the commandment from Ex.25:30 in the process.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that human need and suffering trumps a strict interpretation of the law. The spirit of the Law trumps the letter of the Law. The spirit of the Law is that the Sabbath was given to man so he could rest from his labors and contemplate God. It was not meant to be a burden to him or used as an excuse to refrain from doing good or helping others, as we will see in the next passage.
Ultimately, Jesus claims sovereignty over the Sabbath itself. He calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath. He had made that day. He had given it to Israel as a holiday. Thus He claims for Himself the final interpretation of what it meant to keep the Sabbath. It was a claim to Divine authority for Him. Human need trumps strict observance and even if it did not, He reserves the ultimate right as the final Judge of mankind to determine who is a lawbreaker.
Today is Good Friday. Let us consider the day where the Lord who made the world was slain by it. Where Love was met only with hate and derision. Consider our own natures and our need for daily renewal. Consider that His death allowed Him to share His resurrection with us. That the same Spirit that raised the Lord from the dead now dwells within us, granting us that life today.