Rule following is part of human life. Any just society has rules – just ones. The rules and following the rules all have some greater purpose. Any adult member of a community or society has a responsibility to know what the rules of their group are, to follow them, and to realize the potential harm that can be done if they or other members do not follow the rules. They also must understand that no rule is perfect, and if they are Christian the commandment to love others as Jesus Himself loved us is higher than any rule. We don’t have the right to hide behind rules and avoid true and authentic acts of love for our neighbor. Jesus reveals the hidden meaning behind his disciples plucking the grain on the Sabbath. They are the priests of the new covenant and they must feed on the true bread to offer fitting worship to God on the Sabbath. After all, the Sabbath was made for man to worship and listen to God – that’s the first purpose of the Sabbath. Relaxing from work on the Sabbath is meant to allow us to find true rest in God: for this we must do the things that He has told us are important, not simply refrain from the things we think are important.
Hearing that he was about to die, Hezekiah prayed not that he be granted several more years of life but that he be permitted to stand before the judgment of God, as he wished. For he knew that Solomon pleased God by not asking for a longer life. Preparing to journey to the Lord, therefore, Hezekiah chronicled his works, how he had walked before the Lord in truth and in perfection of heart. Happy is the conscience that remembers good works at a time of affliction: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” or as it is written elsewhere, “Who will glory in the purity of his heart?” This is the explanation: perfection of heart can now be attributed to him because he destroyed idols, overturned the vessels of Baal in the temple, shattered the bronze serpent and did other things that Scripture commemorates.1
Do you see how many levels of argument Jesus is making in stating this case? They are “in the temple.” The persons involved are “priests.” The time is “the sabbath.” The act itself is “profane.” Note that he does not say gently that they “break” the sabbath law but more grievously that they “profane” it. Yet in all this they not only escape punishment but are free from blame, being “guiltless.”
So do not treat the example of the priests in the same way as the example of David. For David’s case occurred only once, and was not done by a priest, and occurred due to an explicit need, and so was deserving of excuse. But the example of the priests was done repeatedly, every sabbath, was done by priests, and was done in the temple, and it too was of necessity. They were acquitted of charges not by special pleading or indulgence but on reasonable grounds according to the principles of justice.2
THEODORE OF HERACLEA:
You will also thus observe that knowing God is more necessary than resting on the sabbath. The sabbath was given to the Jews when, in Egypt, they were turned toward idolatry. And the sabbath was given for this reason: so that they would not call the world uncreated and outside the sphere of providence, but that they would acknowledge that God is both the One who planned it and that it is he himself who made the world in six days and on the seventh day rested. When God commanded them to do no work on the sabbath, it was to remind them of this. Subsequently, the fact that God is the Maker of the universe has become known to all, and so much of the detailed sabbath law has become superficial. If these extreme arguments about the sabbath were truly useful, they would have been applied not only to human beings but even to the sun and moon. Imagine that the very sun would cease working its benefits to us on the sabbath day. No. This commandment has been given to human beings, even from the foundation of the world.3
- COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 11.38.1–3. McKinion, S. A. (Ed.). (2004). Isaiah 1-39 (p. 262). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 39.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 235). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 84. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 237). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.