On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”Luke 6:1-5, ESV
Could you imagine this scene? This conversation almost seems like satire. Picture this. Twelve men follow Jesus through a field of grain. They are still adjusting to this new life of sojourning as they follow Jesus. The daily itinerary consists of traveling, teaching, serving until every person’s needs are met, and having no place to lay their heads at night. These men are a bit tired and hungry, but in their souls, they feel the kind of overwhelming goodness of God that David described in Psalm 23 as his cup overflowing. On this particular day, it is Sabbath, and they walk through the grain field on their way to Synagogue. It’s morning, and Jesus’ disciples are hungry.
As those thirteen men walk through the grain together, other men are keenly watching. Jesus and his band of ragtag men are suspected of heresy by the established religious hierarchy. Those other men watching were Pharisees. They became offended as they watched Jesus’ followers pluck a few heads of grain as they walk on. Were they offended because they owned the field, and therefore they felt as if Jesus’ disciples had robbed them of a handful of grain? No. They were not the farm owners. Were those Pharisees offended because Jesus’ followers had been immorally stealing? No. The Jewish laws gave the poor rights in taking a little grain from the edges of the field. So then, if the Pharisees were offended by the disciples’ actions of eating a handful of grain, but the twelve were within their rights, then why were they offended?
This is where we might get a little chuckle. The Pharisees were spying on Jesus and His twelve, always trying to catch them in some nefarious deed or heretical teaching. Luke recorded this story because the enemies of Jesus thought they had found something morally repugnant to report to their superiors in the Sanhedrin. That’s right. The Pharisees thought that the disciples eating a handful of grain was morally incompatible with a faithful Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus should be wholesale rejected in their minds because He allowed His followers to work on the Sabbath day. A work? The Jewish Sabbath law forbade working but was the disciples plucking a few heads of grain in their hands and then rubbing them together to remove the grain to be eaten really fall under the category of work?
The Pharisees had a problem on their hands with the way that they read and interpreted the Scripture. Their problem is highlighted in every frustrating interaction between them and the Saviour. Jesus kept teaching the scripture differently from the Pharisee’s teaching tradition (Matt 5:21-43). We should be asking the question, “why was there such a difference between Jesus’ teaching and the Pharisee’s teaching if they were both using the scripture?”
The War of Hermeneutics
The Pharisee’s read the Bible in a way that I will categorize as an unhealthy biblicism. I use the term unhealthy to distinguish between misinterpreting the Bible and being thoroughly biblical. The Apostle Paul wrote about this phenomenon of Pharisaical misinterpretation in 2 Corinthians 3. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”, Paul wrote. He was distinguishing his Christian hermeneutic from the method of biblical interpretation employed by Jesus’ Pharisaical enemies. Paul went on to describe the underlying problem of their interpretation was due to their own spiritual blindness. Those Pharisees read the Bible night and day, but apart from the Holy Spirit’s internal work, their efforts were futile. Because they could not appreciate the true meaning of scripture, they inevitably interpreted and applied the scripture in erroneous ways. Unhealthy biblicism naturally digresses into an absurd self-contradiction and, or double standard.
The specific example in Luke’s narrative before us is the Pharisees thinking Jesus’ disciples are morally guilty of breaking the fourth commandment. The “letter” of the commandment was condemning Jesus’ twelve because the Pharisee’s teaching tradition had categorized these kinds of actions broadly as harvesting. The disciples picked a few heads of grain and were now “harvesters.” According to this unhealthy biblicism that would not consider the “spirit” of law, the twelve broke the fourth commandment of no work on the Sabbath. In an attempt to guard the fourth commandment, they made the good law of God into something heavy to bear. This heavy burden of law-keeping became a tool in the hand of these hypocritical Pharisees who used it to manipulate and control people.
Jesus was not their kind of biblicist. The Son of God was the perfect interpreter, of course, Himself also being the author. Jesus allowed his disciples to eat a little grain because that is good. Those image-bearers are valuable and not harvesting grain on the Sabbath day. They were merely hungry men who were busy being spent for the kingdom of God, and therefore, like David’s men, they did what seemed to be uncouth. The twelve were with their king, and He led them to satisfy a little hunger on their journey forward into the spiritual battle. Furthermore, men were not created as slaves to the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for men to realize there will be a future glory and a future rest at the end of their obedient work to God. The Sabbath was made for men to keep their eyes upon their God and their goal to enter His rest where there will be everlasting joy.
The Pharisees are reading the letter of the law (2 Cor 3:6). They are adherents to an unhealthy biblicism. Jesus reads the meaning of those letters and interprets them according to the spirit (2 Cor 3:6). Is Jesus a biblicist? If we call Jesus’ theological opponents biblicists, then no. Jesus is biblical, and it seems like He says, “it is written” every chance He gets. Jesus perfectly interprets the Bible as a perfect whole. You and I are incapable of perfect interpretation, but we can copy Jesus’ hermeneutics. We must endeavor to interpret as Jesus does, or we will easily fall prey to the kind of legalism that naturally overflows from an unhealthy biblicism.