15. Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11)

Gospel Parallels §69-70
Audio (18:08)

James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Man with the Withered Hand' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Man with the Withered Hand' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

We hesitate to be critical of another's faith. After all, we want them to respect our own. But unless we understand the religion of the Pharisees, we'll never grasp why their teaching and Jesus' teaching were so diametrically opposed.

"1  One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. 2  Some of the Pharisees asked, 'Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?' 3  Jesus answered them, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4  He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.' 5  Then Jesus said to them, 'The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.'

6  On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7  The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8  But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, 'Get up and stand in front of everyone.' So he got up and stood there. 9  Then Jesus said to them, 'I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?' 10  He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11  But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus." (Luke 6:6-11, NIV)

The Pharisees were zealous for the Law. Right now during my devotional time I am reading Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic Psalm devoted to praise of the Law. For example, I read this prayer:

"Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.
Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain." (Psalm 119:33-36)

A Hedge around the Law

The Pharisees would have said a hearty "Amen" to these words, since they reflect the Pharisees' devotion to the Mosaic Law. Unfortunately, this devotion to the Law led to such extremes that instead of obeying the Law itself, they ended up obeying a multitude -- literally thousands -- of tiny rules that were one step removed from the Law. Let me explain.

Imagine two concentric circles. The inner circle represents the Mosaic Law itself as it appears in the Bible. The outer circle represents a series of rules interpreting the Law. The Pharisees felt that the Law was so holy, that they needed to place a "hedge" or "fence" around it, so that no one would inadvertently break the Law. This "hedge" was the "traditions of the elders," a body of oral law written down by the Rabbis in the second century and later to form the Talmud. The idea was, if you keep the oral law, you can't help but keep the actual Mosaic Law.

Law-Centered Religion

What resulted was a law-centered religion. Love for God was expressed in love for his Law. But being consumed with keeping the Law for its own sake makes one vulnerable to being centered on one's own performance, rather than on the more important principles that underlie the Law -- love for one's neighbor, real justice, and mercy. Jesus accused the Pharisees of tithing even on garden herbs, but neglecting the love of God (Luke 11:42).

Orthodox and conservative Jews to this day keep a "Kosher kitchen." This means, in part, that they have two completely separate sets of cookware, one for meat products and the other for dairy products. The idea is that, if you have two sets of cookware, then it is impossible to break the verse in the Mosaic Law that says, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23:19b; 34:26b; Deuteronomy 14:21b), which was probably a prohibition of participating in a pagan Canaanite fertility ritual.138 The actual law gave way to a complex set of dietary laws that have little point.

Plucking and Eating Barley Grain (Luke 6:1-2)

In the area of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees had an especially large accumulation of rules. Observant Jews celebrate the Sabbath from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening, and seek to honor God in the day by doing no work, but observing a Sabbath rest. That is a good thing. But the Pharisees and scribes began to define what was and was not work, and some of their rules were just plain silly.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat or barley field just before harvest, probably on a field path, helping themselves to handfuls of the grains pulled off of grain heads. They would rub the grain between their palms to dislodge the husks, and then eat the grain. Now you might object to this, if it were your grainfield, but what they were doing was considered entirely appropriate: "If you enter your neighbor's grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain" (Deuteronomy 23:25).

The Pharisees, however, were concerned because they were doing this on the Sabbath, and it broke their myriad of rules against working on the Sabbath. Here's an apt quotation from the Talmud:

"In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is considered threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing."139

Of course, there were always loopholes in the Sabbath laws for the creative. Alfred Edersheim observes, "If a man wished to move a sheaf on his field, which of course implied labor, he had only to lay upon it a spoon that was in his common use, when, in order to remove the spoon, he might also remove the sheaf on which it lay."140

The Pharisees must have been watching Jesus and his disciples for just such an infraction of their Sabbath rules. And when they spotted the disciples eating grain in the fields, they asked: "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" (6:2)

David Eating Consecrated Bread from the Tabernacle (Luke 6:3-4)

Jesus' answer is different than I would have expected. I thought he would point out the foolishness of their Sabbath labor interpretations that were laughable, if the Pharisees hadn't been so serious about them. But that would have put him on their level, debating with each other exactly how the Law should be interpreted. Instead, he takes an entirely different tack.

"Jesus answered them, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.'" (Luke 6:3-4)

Jesus refers to the incident in 1 Samuel 21:1-9, where David flees for his life, when he learns that King Saul is seeking to kill him. He goes to Nob, a village in Benjamin where the tabernacle is located. The priest is surprised that he is traveling alone, and David makes up a story about the secrecy of the mission and about meeting his men later. He asks for five loaves of bread for his journey, and the priest answers that he has nothing to give him except some of the special consecrated bread (KJV "shewbread") that has just been replaced by fresh bread, and had sitting for a week before the Presence of the Lord in the tabernacle. According to Leviticus 24:5-9, it is reserved for the priests who must eat it in a holy place.

Nevertheless, the priest gives David some of the consecrated bread for him and for his men. He does so because David is the King's emissary and son-in-law, and he is on a holy mission and is hungry.

What point is Jesus making by referring to this incident? Apparently, that human need should override bare legalism,141 for Mark adds Jesus' comment, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The Pharisees must have been fuming. To them the opposite was true, that man must conform himself to the Law no matter what the inconvenience or need.

Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5)

But Jesus doesn't leave it there. Instead he asserts his own authority: "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (6:5). If David could eat the consecrated bread, how much more should the antitype of David do so? Though Jesus does not clearly state the messianic implications of his self-designation Son of Man, they are implied here. (See my essay on "The Son of Man" in Appendix 1). If the Pharisees had been angry at Jesus' allusion to need taking precedence over the law when David ate of the consecrated bread, they must have been furious at Jesus' assertion of his own authority over the Sabbath. "Just who does he think he is?!"

The Man with the Shriveled Hand (Luke 6:6-8)

Luke includes a final incident to illustrate Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees. On another Sabbath, Jesus enters a synagogue -- we're not told in which town this occurs -- and begins to teach. In that particular synagogue is a man whose right hand is shriveled, probably some form of muscular atrophy or paralysis. Whether or not he was planted by the Pharisees in order to trick Jesus into breaking the Sabbath laws, we don't know, but Luke notes that

"The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath." (Luke 6:7)

Laws about healing on the Sabbath seem somewhat contradictory and confused. In general, the rabbis held that only a danger to life warranted a breach of the Sabbath law. Thus someone suffering from angina might be treated,142 but not someone with a toothache.143

Jesus is aware of the Pharisees' motives and tells the man with the shriveled hand, "Get up and stand in front of everyone." The stage is set for a confrontation.

Saving Life and Doing Good on the Sabbath (Luke 6:9-11)

With the poor handicapped man standing before them, Jesus asks, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (6:9). Jesus looks around at them all, waiting for an answer. Surely, their own Sabbath tradition affirmed that the Sabbath was for doing good. How could they argue at that? But by their looks, Jesus can tell that they are unhappy at being so neatly tricked. The Pharisees have no concern, no pity for the man standing in the synagogue. All they can think about is their precious interpretation of the Law. Mark's Gospel adds,

"He looked around at them in anger ... deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts." (Mark 3:5)

I've seen this same kind of stubbornness from those who are convinced that miracles don't occur in our day. Rather than rejoice that people are miraculously healed by the power of the risen Lord, they try to find fault with the healer or the healings. How blind! How callous!

Jesus looks around at the Pharisees in their petty stubbornness and self-righteousness. Then he turns to the man and says, "Stretch out your hand." As the man does so, it is completely restored to normal. In my mind's eye I can see him hold his healed right hand up next to his normal left hand and break into a great smile. The people in the synagogue gasp. But the Pharisees are angry.

This section concludes with the Pharisees beginning to plot how they might stop Jesus, a plot that grows until it culminates in Jesus' death.

Lessons for Disciples

You are one of Jesus' disciples observing all this. What does Jesus intend you to learn from it?

First, to observe the Sabbath. Nowhere does Jesus give any justification for breaking the Sabbath. No doubt, he and his disciples observed it as a day of rest and worship.

Second, that the Law is not to make life harder for man, but to help man. While the Pharisees have no qualms about the Law preventing mercy towards the suffering, Jesus will have none of it. Jesus is clearly not a religious legalist, but a Man in love with people, always cognizant of their needs and eager to alleviate their suffering. He doesn't see observance of the Law as the point, but the love and mercy that the Law points to.

The Christian world is full of legalists and legalisms, of canon laws and constitutions. We fuss about hem heights and make-up, sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes. Discipline is often administered harshly, both in parochial schools and Christian churches. We make judgments of men and women and young people on the basis of hair length, body piercings, and tattoos. Several generations ago in America, we fought about whether black men and women could attend our churches and sit in our favorite pews. We dispute about words and ecclesiastical power and scheme at ways to defeat our religious opponents, who don't see things quite as we do. We argue about which church's members can be saved, since they surely don't agree with our pet doctrines. Trustees and deacons pride themselves on their fiscal responsibility and tight purse strings, when those with a heart for ministry desperately try to meet the needs in their communities. A rules-based religion is no more than a modern-day Pharisaism.

When I read this passage, I get the distinct feeling that Jesus is disgusted with our complex systems of moral justification that end up defeating his mission in our lives and in our churches. His is a much simpler religion. It starts with love for the Father and works itself out by love for man. It flows from a heart yielded to God, not a mind schooled in regulations. That's the religion Jesus modeled for his chosen disciples -- and for you and me today.

Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.

If we choose to follow Jesus in this love quest, we'll be criticized by our religious peers. Jesus was; can we expect anything less? But his is the way of Life, where people with shriveled hands and lives are encouraged by the Master to stretch them forth, and in the process of this stretching faith, are wonderfully restored. That, my friends, is today's lesson for disciples.


Lord, I've been in churches since I was a baby, and that's dangerous. Please help me not to become institutionalized by the accumulated man-made traditions of my church. Rather, help me to keep my eyes on You to see Your purposes. Keep my feet ready and free to follow You in your sometimes strange pathways. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Luke 6:5)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. List some of the traditions that are taken for granted in your church, but are not directly mentioned in the Bible. Which seem to aid Christian mission? Which seem to impede the work of Christ?
  2. Teaching that God's rules can sometimes be set aside for the sake of human need, can be dangerous. How can we observe this truth without abusing it?
  3. Are there any people who you are "looking for a reason to accuse"? (6:7) Why is this attitude dangerous? How can it blind you?


Abbreviations and References

[138] There is a parallel to Exodus 23:19b in the Ugaritic text "The Gods Fair and Beautiful," indicating the likelihood that the biblical prohibition was directed specifically against a Canaanite ceremony, which was probably connected with its fertility cult. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 485-486. Also R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; InterVarsity, 1973), p. 180.

[139] Jer. Shabb. p. 10a, lines 28 to 26 from bottom, cited in Edersheim. Life and Times 2:56.

[140] Shabb. 146a, cited in Edersheim, Life and Times 2:56.

[141] So Morris, Luke, p. 122 and Marshall, Luke, p. 232.

[142] Edersheim, Life and Times 2:60 cites Yoma 84a.

[143] Ibid.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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