In this story Matthew (12.1-21) explains that Jesus and His disciples were passing through the grain fields on the Sabbath day, and because the disciples were hungry, they began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff, and eat the grain. There is no suggestion that the disciples were stealing. On the contrary, the right to pick and eat grain at the edges of fields was established by Deuteronomy 23.25. The sole issue was the Sabbath and the Pharisees’ narrow rules for keeping it. Some years later the famous Jewish rabbi Maimonides said, “To pluck ears is a kind of reaping.” But the disciples were guilty of more than that, according to the Pharisees. By plucking grain they were guilty of reaping. By rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing. By blowing off the chaff they were guilty of winnowing. And by the total of those acts they were guilty of preparing a meal—all of which was forbidden.

How did Jesus answer? He might have answered by making some useful and right distinctions. The disciples were not working, after all. Plucking a few heads of grain was not harvesting. In any case, they were disciples not farmers. But this was not what He said. His answer was quite different. He raised three matters.

Everyone was familiar with the story of David in I Samuel 21.1-16. David has been anointed to be king over Israel, but he was hated by Saul, who wanted to kill him, and he had fled to the priestly town of Nob to save his life. When David arrived, he was hungry, having no provisions, and when he asked the priest for food, all Ahimelech had was the “consecrated bread” that had been in the tabernacle before the ark. There were twelve loaves of bread, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and they were placed in the tabernacle to signify the fellowship of the people with God and their being consecrated to him. Ahimelech gave this bread to David, and David ate it and gave some to his men.

By introducing this with the words “haven’t you read,” Jesus was not suggesting that the Pharisees had never read the story but that they had not grasped its significance. If they had understood it, they would have known that their approach to the Sabbath was fundamentally wrong since they were unable to explain such an incident. If David was right, then his need at that moment superseded the normal rules that would have restricted the use of the consecrated bread for the priests. The Pharisees should have known that the law was given to help people not hinder them.

In Mark 2.27, Jesus explains that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is the point He makes here. The laws governing the Sabbath (as well as other laws) were made for our benefit and not to hurt us or make life difficult.

Jesus’ second point is one only Matthew records, no doubt because Matthew is a particularly Jewish Gospel and the temple was of paramount importance to the Jews. It is about the work the priests did on the Sabbath.

The priests worked on the Sabbath and so “profaned” it – Jesus uses the word desecrate – by burning incense, changing the bread of the Presence, and by offering a double burnt offering. By referring to this practice, Jesus showed that some work took precedence even over the Sabbath laws. Since Jesus went on to say that one greater than the temple was present, meaning Himself, He was teaching that the work He was doing was more important than the Sabbath regulations. There is also a suggestion that the kingdom He was bringing would supersede the Old Testament dispensation.

Jesus’ third point was a reference to Hosea 6.6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The point is similar to Paul’s valuation of love in I Corinthians 13.3: “If I … have not love, I gain nothing.” If we do not have love (or show mercy), none of the other things, are of value. Yet if that is true of something as important as faith, how much more a set of Sabbath regulations.

Matthew now adds a second, related incident, the healing of a man with a shriveled hand. Luke makes clear that it was “on another Sabbath.” Matthew includes it: (1) as another argument in support of Jesus’ Sabbath interpretation, and (2) to validate it.

Matthew builds so naturally on the last one having to do with mercy. In this story Jesus shows mercy to the handicapped man, which the Pharisees were not about to do. Jesus rebukes them for their hypocrisy. They permitted a person to rescue a trapped sheep on the Sabbath, especially if it was one of their own. So why couldn’t Jesus rescue the man with the shriveled hand? Is a sheep more valuable than a human being? Obviously, a man is much more valuable than a sheep. Therefore, it was right for Him to heal the man and, by extension, to do good anywhere or at any time. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” Jesus said.

The healing of the damaged man proves that Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath is correct. This is the point at which the discussion ends, the case being the same as Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man. When He healed the paralyzed man, having previously said, “Your sins are forgiven,” the healing validated His claim to be able to forgive sins. In this story, when He healed the man’s hand, clearly with God’s power, He proved that His interpretation of the Sabbath and His acts of mercy on the Sabbath were right because they were approved by God.