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The Plucky Sabbath


This one time, at pathfinder camp, we ran out of food. On Sabbath. I, being a pathfinder leader’s worst nightmare, quoting chapter and verse, said ‘If the disciples were allowed to pick grain, surely we could go buy some bread?’ Needless to say my pathfinder leaders were not impressed with my pre-adolescent exegesis and practical application of Mark 2. That Sabbath became a wonderful training in the combination of end-time survival skills and fasting. 

This narrative of Jesus and disciples, discussed with different emphases in all three synoptic gospels, has always been puzzling to me. At first reading the argument that Jesus gives seems to me to be: ‘David broke some rules lots of years ago, so why can’t we?’ That sounds very much like the argumentation that a child would give to her parents, when she feels that a sibling is given preferential treatment: ‘Johnny gets to skip school, why can’t I?’.

Now, I would not pretend to assume that Jesus or Mark argue like children, so as I see it there must be more to this narrative than what meets the eye. As far as I can see there are two options to explain this pericope. The first option assumes general circumstances, the other special circumstances. 

Before we get to these two interpretations, a quick look at the Bible might be in order. The gospel of Mark is generally assumed to be the oldest, so that is always a good place to start. Take Mark 2.23-28. Jesus and the disciples are walking through fields of grain. The disciples pluck some of the grain. The Pharisees catch them in the act, and ask Jesus why his disciples are breaking the Sabbath. Now the disciples are plucking, not reaping. Deuteronomy 23:25 differentiates quite strongly between plucking and reaping, and only reaping is explicitly forbidden in any writing. But Jesus does not seem to care about this major distinction (and, thus, the false accusation).

Jesus replies with a story about a time that David and his companions were hungry. They entered the house of God, where Abiathar was the high priest, and David ate the bread of the Presence, sharing it with his companions. Now, even a summary examination of 1 Samuel 21:1-7 will show some large discrepancies between what Mark has Jesus say and what we can read in 1 Samuel, not to mention the difficulties of 1 Samuel itself. Without going into it too deeply, this narrative about David is one of urgency, haste and danger, where the future king of Israel is on a mission from the heavenly king. And ultimately, his divine needs take precedence over Levitical law.

It takes absolutely no stretch of the imagination to see the similarities between David and Jesus. The circumstances are special; this is the first way of understanding that passage that I hinted to above. Jesus is the true king just like David, not yet enthroned. He has the right to circumnavigate certain laws, and thus the actions of the disciples are not acts to be scorned, but acts to be admired: they are a sign of Jesus’ kingship, a sign of the soon-coming kingdom. And then, when the last verse says that the Son of Man, is lord of even the Sabbath, the whole narrative falls into place.

This seems to be the interpretation preferred by the Sabbath School quarterly, albeit with a somewhat ham-fisted approach.

I truly believe that this passage can, and should be, interpreted in a different manner, and in this I am not alone. Now clearly there are similarities between Jesus and David, but nothing in the narrative emphasises that this is the connection that we as readers should make. Equally likely is that the connection is to the need and the hunger, evident in both the situation of David and of the disciples. Jesus, according to Mark, clearly exonerates David and compatriots on account of their need, thus implying that anyone who is in need and hungry may perform work on Sabbath to feed themselves. The Sabbath commandment is by no means annulled, but a criterion for interpreting the law is given: basic, immediate human need. This means that the interpretation of the law in Mark 2 is not specific to Jesus, but general and applicable to any situation (and possibly even every commandment, but let’s not get into that right now).

If we follow this general interpretation of the first verses, the last verse needs general interpretation as well. It reads: ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ Now it is apparent that creation is in the back of Mark’s mind. The sabbath was created to benefit humans. This is a common theme in Jewish writings, and is part of a broader idea in them. Creation and its institutions were meant to be managed by humankind. This means it is humanity itself that defines in what way the Sabbath can benefit it — but benefit it must. Going hungry, with abundant food waiting to be plucked, is not beneficial. This means, according to Jesus, that it is not a valid way of celebrating the Sabbath.

This then leads us the tricky concluding statement: ‘so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’. This is a play on words, on many levels. There is the obviously play with the word ‘man,’ meaning both Adam and mankind. But Jesus’s frequent self-identification as Son of Man similarly associates him both with the messianic figure of Daniel 7 and with humans in general. He is both part of humanity, the son of man, and not part of humanity, the Son of Man. Clearly, as Son of Man he is lord of all. But, in this case, as son of man he is lord of the Sabbath — as all humankind are. It would not arguing choosing one side of this over the other.

Does this lead to a paradoxical interpretation? Does Jesus protest to the fact that mankind (i.e. the pharisees) assume authority of how to observe the Sabbath, by answering that mankind have authority to observe the Sabbath? Quite possibly. But my mind, like the minds of many, thrives on such apparent paradoxes.

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