Mark 2:23-28

Jesus and his friends are going through a field, and some of the group, start to pluck heads of grain. Maybe they are hungry, maybe it was just the way you pull grass, or leaves off a bush, as you walk, a sort of fidgeting, I supposed you’d call it. Whatever the reason, it gives the watching Pharisees an opportunity to resume their criticisms of Jesus.

Before we get into the exchange that happens, I want to stop to wonder about the fact that the Pharisees were there, that they saw this happening. It was, we read, the Sabbath, when no observant Jew would be working or travelling; there were rules around how far you could travel, but if you didn’t need to, you didn’t.

So for these Pharisees to be there at all, to see what happened, suggests that they were paying a great deal of attention to Jesus and his group. They were watching, looking for an opportunity to pounce. Not all the pharisees, for sure – we know that many listened to Jesus with interest, and not a few became followers – but some of them were so threatened by Jesus’ teaching that they were willing to watch him for a chance to discredit him, to remove what they saw, I suspect, as a threat to their authority.

We’ll come back to that.

Another observation. They were walking through fields of corn – I think it’s safe to assume that they weren’t their own fields – picking the heads as they walked. Now given the willingness of Jesus’ critics to pick on anything, you might have wondered why they didn’t take offense at that fact. For surely they were essentially stealing this grain from the farmer who had planted it, tended it, and would soon be harvesting it.

But in fact, in doing this they were actually within both the letter and the spirit of the law. Since I suspect few of us are familiar with all the details of the book of Deuteronomy, we might have missed this nugget:

“Now, if you enter your neighbour’s grainfield, you may pluck the grain with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain”

The law specifically allowed you to walk through a neighbour’s field, and pluck grain by hand. You couldn’t bring tools, but what you could casually take as you walked, that was allowed.

This comes from the same part of the law that allows for gleaning – that when you harvest, you could not go back a second time to gather what you missed the first. Whatever fell, or was missed, was to be left, so that those most in need could come and gather it. We’re more familiar with that practice, because of the role it plays in the story of Ruth, as she gleaned in Boaz’s field, before catching his attention.

We’ll come back to this, too.

When you look at the arguments between Jesus and his critics, it’s quite striking how often this is their complaint – that he is breaking the Sabbath. It seems as if that has become, somehow, their touchstone, their key test for whether or not someone is following the law.

So Jesus doesn’t respond by arguing the details. There was an argument, current at the time, that picking the heads of corn by hand and eating them, because it didn’t involve using any of the tools of harvesting or food preparation, shouldn’t be classified as work.

But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in debating the details. Instead, he goes and upturns the whole of their system of thinking by challenging the whole idea of the sabbath.

He starts by pointing them to a famous example, of David clearly breaking the law when he and his companions were hungry.

And then comes the mic drop:

The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath.

And not just the sabbath.

The law was made for people, not people for the law.

That is what lies behind those laws on gleaning, and the law allowing you to pick your neighbour’s grain. The law protects the owner of the field, but then it adds these caveats, to ensure that the rights the law protects do not operate in such a way as to cause harm to the weakest in the society.

The law isn’t the point. It isn’t an end in itself.

The law is there for people. To protect the vulnerable, and to protect the society as a whole.

So what is the law of the Sabbath for? Before it was surrounded with details, the sabbath law was simply the fifth commandment:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

The sabbath law fulfilled two important purposes in the wider Torah.

Firstly, of course, it was about rest. It was about that need to stop from the day to day grind, to take a break, and to refocus on who you are, who God is, what really matters.

Which brings us back to the Pharisees, watching Jesus so carefully on the Sabbath, seeking to catch him out. Rather than taking the Sabbath as a gift – an opportunity to rest, to reconnect, to spend time in prayer – they spent it at the work of policing how others received the gift.

For them, condemning another who doesn’t buy into their worldview was more important than resting, more than seeking the spiritual refreshment God gives.

That’s the way, when you treat the law as the end, and forget what it for. You end up in a legalism that makes the Sabbath law a burden, when it was intended be a gift of freedom, a release from the burdens of daily life.

And if that were not clear enough, there is the second role that the sabbath played, one that is almost always forgotten.

you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident

The first half of the sabbath law says “Take a break. as a gift of God, take a breather. Don’t be ground down by all the demands of life”.

And the second half says “Give that same gift, that same freedom, to everyone else. All the people under your control – your family, your slaves, even the foreigners who work for you – and even your animals. Make sure that everyone receives this gift that God has given”. To the extent that the Sabbath law contrained, it did so to protect others from our tendency to greed and selfishness, to ensure that all benefitted from the gracious gift of God.

God’s law didn’t exist to be another burden, a restriction upon us.

We were not created to obey the law of God.

God’s law was given so that we might be set free – and that we might set one another free. Amen