Food in the Bible: Matthew 12:1-8

Matthew 12:1-8 At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

Sabbath has been a pretty regular part of the conversation here about Food in the Bible. How do we read this passage in light of extending the sabbath to include the Sabbatical year (Deut 15) and Jubilee (Lev 25)? Or in light of the Sabbath being about remembering our place within the creation story?

I’ve read this passage in the past as another exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees (which it is) in which Jesus triumphs over those legalists showing them who’s boss. The sabbath is primarily about taking a day off and following the rules and Jesus is breaking the rules in order to show them how stupid their rules are. But this is not quite what’s happening is it?

Jesus is not getting rid of the sabbath. He’s reclaiming and redeeming it for its rightful purpose. He uses two examples from the Hebrew scripture (the only Bible around at the time) to show them that had missed the point of the sabbath. In fact, the disciples plucking heads of grain is reminiscent of the sabbatical command to allow the poor and wild animals to glean from the fields.

Jesus’ example of David taking the bread of the Presence when he was hungry reminds me of the way we treat the elements of communion. Denominations have different versions of the same thing. Basically the “bread” and “wine” are considered “holy” and off limits except during the particular ritual of the Eucharist. In some churches the bread and wine have to be finished off, poured down a particular drain or disposed of properly because of their sanctity.

In light of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 about divisions at the agape meal and his warning about taking communion unworthily which follows, he seems to imply that taking Eucharist unworthily means not sharing your food with the hungry. If that is the case then every time the elements (especially if it’s a loaf of real bread) are disposed of or gorged on by someone in order to fulfill the letter of some traditional ritual, we may be partaking unworthily of the Lord’s Supper. (further discussion will be shelved until we get to 1 Corinthians sometime in 2050).

Finally, Jesus reorients the understanding of sabbath by putting the commandments in light of God’s desire for “mercy and not sacrifice.” This is a helpful guiding principle for following Jesus and interpreting the Bible. If mercy is not the driving force and guiding principle then we will end up with empty legalism and broken relationships. Jesus identifies himself as “lord of the sabbath,” meaning not only over the particular command to rest on the sabbath day, but also over the command to let fields rest, to free slaves and return land, in essence over the equality and justice of the created order as God intended.

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