One Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples were walking through some fields of grain. His disciples were hungry and began to break off some heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees saw it and said to Jesus, "Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?"
Jesus saw the foolishness of the Pharisees' comparison of breaking off a few heads of grain to eat with harvesting the whole crop. He asked them, "Haven't you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests were allowed to eat. He also shared it with his companions." Then Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath."
What started out as a natural and innocent act by Jesus' disciples led to a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples were hungry, so they picked some grain, shucked the skins and ate the grain. There was nothing wrong with that... except that they were working on the Sabbath. Reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing a meal were considered to be work, and these types of work were not allowed to be done on the Sabbath.
Jesus didn't argue that His disciples broke the letter of the Law. He contested a view of the Sabbath that killed the spirit of the Law. He reaffirmed the principle that the Sabbath was made for man-a day of physical rest and spiritual renewal. He also declared His authority as Lord of the Sabbath.
Jesus' point was that when a higher law such as the Sabbath conflicts with a lower law such as the Pharisees' rules, the higher law takes priority. The higher laws of worship in the temple suspended the lower law of Sabbath observance, and the higher law of mercy suspended the lower law as it did when David and his followers ate the consecrated bread in the temple.
Another time, Jesus went into the synagogue and noticed that there was a man who had a deformed hand. Since it was the Sabbath, the Pharisees were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched to see if he would heal the man. If so, they would accuse Jesus of working on the Sabbath.
Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, "Come and stand in front of everyone." Then he turned toward his enemies and asked, "Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil?" The Pharisees refused to answer him.
Jesus looked at them angrily and was saddened at the hardness of their hearts. Then he said to the man, "Hold out your hand." He held out his hand and Jesus healed him. Immediately the Pharisees left to go and meet with Herod to plot how to kill Jesus.
Jesus reasserted His authority over the Sabbath when He healed the man with the withered hand. Healing was work that could not be performed on the Sabbath unless it was a matter of life and death. Jesus asked the Pharisees if mercy could take precedence over the Sabbath Law. He also asked if it was lawful to save a life or kill someone. If the Pharisees had no mercy for saving life, they would indict themselves as killers on the Sabbath day.
Jesus' earthly ministry was a transitional time between the religious practices of the Old and New Covenants. In the new era Jesus had ushered in, for example, plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath was not unlawful. Yet in their rejection of Jesus' teachings, the Pharisees either did not understand or would not accept that many of their established rituals and traditions could no longer coexist with His new way of life.
The laws, as written by the Pharisees, were oppressive. These experts, in a desire to scrupulously observe the Laws of Moses, had devised 613 commandments. The whole Jewish community was, in their view, obliged to keep these laws. Can you see how oppressive this was? How could you keep these laws if you couldn't read? The overwhelming majority of the people were poor and illiterate. In the view of the religious elite, this did not excuse anyone from observance of each of these 613 laws. So, the literate, presumably the upper class, would have access to the religious regulations, while all the rest would, because of their ignorance, be constantly breaking the laws. The entitled could look down their religious noses at all the "sinners" around them. Jesus saw this exclusion and the distance it seemed to put between God and the people and He confronted it constantly. The passage from Mark's Gospel shows one of his fundamental teachings; the compassionate interpretation of the Law, "The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath."
God created and established the Sabbath as a benefit and blessing to His people. The Pharisees, however, had turned His good deed into a weighty obligation. As the Creator of the Sabbath, Jesus had the authority to determine how it should be best practiced. When we exchange the freedom of the Spirit for the straitjacket of legalism, the rules become more important than the life that the rules were meant to guard. Legalism drains the life out of everyone it touches.
Jesus' opponents had no interest in the welfare of the man with the withered hand; he was important to them only as a potential means to discredit Jesus for breaking their traditions. The Pharisees wanted to make the Sabbath all about show and self-denial, but Jesus reiterated that the Sabbath was and is a celebration of God's graciousness and provision-whether gathering grain, feeding the hungry or healing someone on the Sabbath.
Jesus forced the Pharisees to examine their tradition regarding the Sabbath to see if it was consistent with God's Old Testament Law. When Jesus asked the question in Mark 3:4, He used a device common in the Middle East. He framed the issue in terms of clear-cut extremes. The Pharisees could not answer Jesus' question without condemning themselves. In their stubbornness, they preferred to keep their mouths closed rather than open their hearts and change their traditions. Such hardened religious pride provoked more of a negative reaction in Jesus than any other sin.
Ironically, Jesus had just asked if it was lawful to save a life or kill on the Sabbath, and now, on the Sabbath, Jesus' enemies plotted to kill Him. While the Pharisees worried that Jesus would damage their religious hold over the people, the Herodians-who supported Rome and Rome's puppet ruler, Herod-probably worried that Jesus would provoke political opposition and damage their power base. These two factions, who were normally opposed to each other, found common cause-against Jesus.
Jesus became angry, but at the same time His heart broke. Jesus was angered by sin and grieved by unrepentant hearts. The Good News bounced off calloused hearts and minds without the slightest effect. When our hearts are hardened, we can't see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath. We stop seeing the freedom and healing of another person as important. We become blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what He is up to in the world. Hardness of heart will always rob us even if we are standing in the presence of God. We are encouraged to yield our cold hearts to the warm healing hands of Jesus before it's too late.
Society has largely forgotten that the Sabbath was meant for physical rest and spiritual renewal. Most stores are open seven days a week. Young people often skip attending church because of sports and other activities that take place on Sunday. Christians who observe the Sabbath are seen as weird or different-and people who are seen as weird or different are often targets for ridicule or persecution. Even as we honour the day of rest, we need to be flexible. Human need has to take priority over religious prescription. That's why doctors, nurses, police officers and firefighters work on the Sabbath. Emergencies don't take a day of rest.
In spite of the rapid pace of life, God still invites us to seek proper rest and holy reflection. That is why Jesus and His disciples went from the grain field to the synagogue. They went from feeding the body to feeding the spirit.
Many churches today refuse to address the issues at hand, or if they do address them, they do very little. They conceal the problems and put on a good face. They are like the Pharisees who refused to do anything to help the man with the withered hand. Many people have fled from people and churches who place doctrines, practices, and institutions above the needs of humanity. Man seems to have been made to serve religion and not vice versa.
God is not into rules. He's into relationships. When God gives laws, it's not for the purpose of personal piety. The purpose of the law is to be in right relationships with our neighbours and with God. That's the purpose of the two Great Commandments-love God and love people. There are many reasons for reaching out to meet the needs of people around us. One reason may be to simply lend a helping hand. Another may be to put our gifts and talents to good use. A valid reason could be that we must take action against the nonchalance and indifference others have towards the needs at hand. Many churches have been sorely convicted when a believer steps out and shakes up the status quo.