Debates about the Sabbath – Picking Grain (Luke 6:1-5)

Debates about the Sabbath.

1 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.

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

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

4 [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.”

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


The Pharisees point out that working on the Sabbath is a failure to keep the Sabbath holy.  Thus, the disciples are unlawfully working when they pluck the grain and also rub the heads to separate the chaff.  Jesus is often credited with pointing out to the Pharisees that satisfying human needs takes precedence over the Sabbath.  Indeed, when we get to Luke Chapter 14 this issue will come up again and Jesus makes it pretty clear that the work of rescue, even on the Sabbath, is acceptable if your son or ox falls down a well (Lk 14:5).  Jesus will also teach us that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

Furthermore, in verse 5 Jesus says “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”.  In New Testament usage the term “Son of Man” refers to the Christ.  The word “lord” from the Greek Kyrios, implies a person exercising absolute ownership rites.  So, we can understand this to mean that the Christ is exercising His ownership rights over the Sabbath.  (Is it odd that this didn’t outrage the Pharisees?)

So I can totally accept that Jesus is asserting the precedence of human needs over Sabbath restrictions.

However I want to share with you one other interpretation that I’ve been told, and for me, it is very compelling.  Did you read what David did and those who were with him when they were hungry?  Well if not, you can find it in 1 Samuel 21:1-6.  But let me also give you a bit of background.

David and his men were on the run – the king feared that David would take over the throne, so he was plotting to kill David (who would later become King of Israel).  David asked a priest for bread but the priest told him “I have no ordinary bread on hand, only holy bread; if the men have abstained from women, you may eat some of that.” (1 Sm 21:5)  Hold on!  Why would it matter if they have abstained from women?  What’s that all about?

Well, the holy bread could only be eaten by Arron (the first High Priest) and his sons.  Arron was a Levite (the priestly tribe) so one might reasonably assume that all of his sons are Levites.  But, wait; Aaron’s wife Elisheba was from the house of Judah (as was David).  The sons of Aaron were both of Levi and Jadah.  So, as a son of Aaron, David could consume the holy bread.

But what does this have to do with abstaining from women?  Quite simply, when priests exercised their ministerial functions they had to be in a state of ritual purity.  This meant that they had to abstain from women for a period of time.  It was common for men at arms in pursuit of a holy cause to conform to ritual purity … even if they weren’t priests.  David’s men had kept pure.

The priest didn’t say “if your men are really, really hungry, then they can have the holy bread.”  No, his concern was that they were priestly and pure.  So, if we continue with this interpretation a little further we see in verses 4 and 5 that Jesus isn’t citing hunger in defense of his disciple’s actions.  He is telling the Pharisee that his disciples are priestly.  For some (me included), this episode then is seen as prefiguring the priesthood of the Apostles and perhaps even prefiguring their role in the Eucharist on Sundays.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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